You know what lubricants are—oils and other friction-reducing substances often utilized to cut down on wear and tear and heat production, particularly in industrial pursuits. What you probably don’t know, however, is that lubricants are often used in food production! The FDA has stringent regulations on what constitutes a food-grade lubricant, to ensure that you aren’t consuming any seriously toxic chemicals, but the myriad ways in which lubricants are put to good use in the food industry might surprise you.
To that end, we’ve put together a list of the four ways that lubricants are used in the food production industry!
1. Nontoxic hydrogels are being considered for use in food production
Do you wear contact lenses? If so, you should know that the curve of soft lenses is made of hydrogels! In addition to that, hydrogels make up the absorbent layer in disposable diapers, the dressings used to keep wounds moist and clean, and even as sustained drug delivery systems inside the body! Economic limitations have prohibited the industrial production of nontoxic hydrogels for a long time—but a new way to create hydrogels would only require two abundant and inexpensive ingredients!
This could lead to promising developments in food production application, such as flushing out pipes filled with grape juice in wineries. Because the hydrogel doesn’t mix with the juice, this would cut product loss down to virtually nothing! And since the hydrogel is food-grade, there are no odor, taste or contamination issues.
2. Renewable bio-based lubricants could soon replace raw vegetable oils
Most commercial products produced using lubricants utilize petroleum-based oils—but new “estolide” lubricants developed at the Agricultural Research Service lab could soon replace them!
Estolides have better lubricant function, low-temp performance and biodegradability than petroleum-based oils and are easy to produce: Heat and enzymes are used to remove double bonds from molecules and join two branches together to mimic the properties of more common petroleum-based lubricants. Used in total loss production—that is, industrial production where the lubricants are completely lost to the environment during normal use—estolides and other lubricants derived from vegetable oils are considerably more eco-friendly, due to their low ecotoxicity and high rate of biodegradability.
The estolides will most likely be used in the operation of machinery for agricultural pursuits. Long-term tests for food safety have yet to be concluded, but if estolides prove safe for use in food production, it’s a safe bet that petroleum-based lubricants are on their way out the door!
3. Some lubricants are used to clean food production machines
Not every oil used in the process of producing food is food-grade! Even more fascinating, not every oil deemed food-grade is edible. These are referred to as H1 lubricants, and they’re often used for machinery production, such as canning, blending, cooking, cutting, slicing, peeling, bottling, brewing and handling. There are strict rules surrounding the use of these oils, of course: Any part of the machinery that can contact edible products must be clean and free of H1 lubricant before it’s put back into rotation. The amount of H1 lubricant acceptable for human consumption is extremely low—only 10 parts per million!
It might interest you to know that there’s some internal debate about the categorization of non-contact soluble oils as “H1.” The grading system runs from H1 to H3 and includes other naming conventions that some safety officials consider too similar! It’s easy to understand why—mixing up which oils can come into contact with food products could lead to mass contamination, product recall, and sick consumers!
4. Other lubricants used to clean machinery are, in fact, safe for human consumption
Unlike H1 lubricants, which can only be present up to 10 parts per millions in any food product, and H2 lubricants, which can only be used on machinery that never meets food, H3 lubricants are deemed “edible oils,” and are safe for human consumption! These include corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil. They’re biodegradable and considered safe by experts and are often used to clean and prevent rust on equipment like hooks, trolleys and conveyor belts.
There you are! Four ways lubricants are used in the food production industry. As you can see, keeping machinery low-temp and free of rust is oil’s most important job in food production—and, even more exciting, new eco-friendly options may be on the horizon!