Food safety

Is PLA Food Safe? Understanding the Safety of PLA Products

PLA is a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to common packaging materials.

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PLA is a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to common packaging materials.

Polylactic acid (PLA) has recently emerged as a common material in the food industry. That’s because it offers a sustainable and innovative alternative to traditional plastics. From packaging materials to disposable tableware, PLA's applications in the food sector are expanding. This is driven by a growing emphasis on environmental responsibility and the pursuit of more sustainable practices.

But is PLA food-safe? Does it contain any toxic particles or harmful substances? What about toxic chemicals? Read along as we explore these important questions in detail.

Key points covered:

  1. Polylactic acid or PLA is an adaptable material used to produce packaging for foods.

  2. PLA filament is a specific type of PLA plastic used for 3D printing food packaging.

  3. PLA is biodegradable, non-toxic, non-allergenic, and environmentally friendly. It doesn't commonly lead to health issues.

  4. PLA is an organic material made out of food starches.

  5. PLA can be used only for prepackaged food that is not hot.

  6. PLA is sensitive to very high temperatures.

  7. FoodDocs' smart Food Safety Management System features a temperature log for recording food temperature before packaging.


What is PLA?

PLA is a biodegradable and bioactive thermoplastic made from corn starch or sugar cane. It is used as a sustainable alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics for packaging materials, disposable tableware, and other food-related products.

PLA’s material properties are enough to produce a plastic-like material that can act as packaging for foods at ambient temperature. At the same time, it is known for its eco-friendliness because it can break down into harmless byproducts in composting environments or does not release any toxic substances during degradation.

As a result, it’s gaining more popularity on an industrial scale because of the drive to reduce single-use plastic waste by using compostable materials for food products.

Understanding the PLA filament

You might come across the term “PLA filament” and it’s important to distinguish it from PLA. PLA filament or plastic filament refers to a specific 3D printing material made from PLA using a 3D printer. This means that the filament is derived from PLA and combined with additional additives.

PLA is the general term for the polymer, while PLA filament is a specific form of PLA designed for use in 3D printing technologies.

While PLA filament is generally considered safe for food contact, the final safety of 3D-printed items depends on factors such as the quality of the filament, the print materials, execution of food-safe 3D printing, and any post-processing treatments (such as chemical smoothing) applied.

If the intention is to use 3D-printed items for direct food contact, it's advisable to use PLA filament labeled as food-safe and follow any recommended cleaning and maintenance guidelines.

That’s because not all 3D printing filaments pass safe food grading. Some may cause food safety concerns and develop dangerous chemicals or the growth of bacteria when they come in direct contact with food.

What is PLA made of?

PLA is made mainly of cornstarch or sugar cane, a common food ingredient. The production process involves the following steps:

  1. Fermentation. The raw material is subjected to a fermentation process using microorganisms. This process converts starch into lactic acid.
  2. Chemical processing. The lactic acid is then chemically processed to create a monomer called lactide.
  3. Polymerization. Lactide monomers undergo polymerization, a process where they link together to form long chains, forming a PLA polymer. The polymer is then used for making 3D prints.

Food businesses using PLA must ensure the raw ingredients used to produce PLA are all food-grade materials that will not lead to foodborne illnesses.

Is PLA food-safe?

PLA is generally considered safe for food contact. This property makes it popular for food packaging, disposable tableware, and custom 3D-printed items used in food-related contexts.

Despite this, ensuring the safety of PLA in food products requires attention to certifications, intended use, and considerations specific to the 3D printing process.

Here are four important considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Non-toxic composition. PLA is derived from organic compounds like corn starch and is considered non-toxic. It has no health concerns, which makes it a popular choice for food-related applications.
  2. Biodegradability. PLA is biodegradable and made of biocompatible materials, adding to its environmentally friendly profile. However, its biodegradability depends on specific conditions, such as those found in industrial composting facilities. This means that degrading PLA may not be easy for small businesses.
  3. Certification. If you intend to use PLA for food products, especially in manufacturing or packaging, it's crucial to ensure that the product you use is certified as food-safe. You want to look for products that comply with relevant food safety regulations and standards
  4. Temperature sensitivity. PLA has a lower heat resistance compared to other plastics (like plastic bottles). While it is suitable for pre-packaged foods, it may not be ideal for hot liquids or foods.

Importantly, PLA is not exempt from food contamination. Bacteria buildup may still occur if it’s not handled properly. This means handling PLA requires strict control of temperature and sanitation.

You can use FoodDocs' smart Food Safety Management System to automatically generate monitoring tasks for recording temperature and sanitation practices. You want to record product temperatures before packaging to ensure they are not high enough to create a ground for bacteria.

Food flow packing machine

How is PLA used in the food industry?

PLA has a wide range of applications in the food industry. Here are five common uses you should know about:

  1. Packaging materials. PLA is used to make biodegradable and classic food containers for products. This includes containers, trays, cups, and films. These packaging materials can be used for various products, from fresh produce to pre-packaged meals like sandwiches.
  2. Biodegradable cutlery. PLA-based cutlery — such as knives, forks, spoons, and other ordinary kitchen utensils — provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastic cutlery. These ideal materials can be composted under the right conditions.
  3. Molds and cutters. 3D-printed molds and cookie cutters made from PLA filament can be used in the production of chocolates, cookies, and other confections. These utensils are traditionally made using stainless steel.
  4. Food service ware. PLA is used to produce food service items like trays, clamshells, and food containers. These items are designed for one-time use and can be disposed of in composting facilities.
  5. Lining for paper cups. PLA is also used as a lining material for paper cups, providing a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastic-lined cups.

Keep in mind that while PLA is considered more environmentally friendly than traditional plastics, its biodegradability depends on the presence of industrial composting facilities.

The plastic box container part on the conveyor belt

How can you manage safe PLA packaging with FoodDocs?

The effectiveness of PLA as food packaging can be achieved only if favorable conditions for the material are consistently maintained. This is why food handlers must ensure that PLA packaging materials are stored in the right conditions and used only for appropriate food products. FoodDocs' AI-powered Food Safety Management System can automatically generate relevant food safety monitoring tasks to help you ensure this. It offers:

  1. Temperature log to ensure appropriate PLA packaging
  2. Cleaning and sanitation checklist to help ensure the PLA packaging is free from contamination
  3. Real-time dashboard to help identify areas that need more attention


Temperature log to ensure appropriate PLA packaging

Food inside PLA packaging must be at a temperature lower than 60°C (140°F). Steel hot food may cause shrinking or warping of the packaging material.

You can use FoodDocs' automatically generated monitoring tasks for logging the temperature of food before wrapping it in PLA packaging. This monitoring task will ensure that the integrity of the packaging material is retained even after shipping the packed product.

You can also further customize the temperature log by inputting the target internal temperature before packaging. Our system will then recognize this standard and suggest corrective actions in case of non-compliance.


Temperature Log from FoodDocs software

Cleaning and sanitation checklist to ensure PLA packaging is free from contamination

PLA must be kept in a clean space to prevent it from collecting biological hazards and causing food poisoning. This contamination is likely when you have an untidy kitchen and working area.

To prevent this, ensure that all food handlers and facilities in your business follow critical cleaning tasks using our automatically generated Cleaning and Sanitation checklist.

This checklist contains the essential tasks to protect PLA packaging and your products from any food safety hazards. You can also customize it by adding specific handling tasks for PLA packaging.

Sanitation and cleaning feature FoodDocs

Sanitation and cleaning checklist from FoodDocs software

Real-time dashboard to identify areas that need more attention

Ensure your team and operations comply with food safety standards with a quick overview using our real-time dashboard. With the help of this feature, you can easily identify key areas that require more attention. You can quickly detect non-compliant food safety tasks and come up with immediate solutions to minimize further problems.

Our research shows that this saves at least 20% of the time it takes you to supervise your team and allows you to focus on more meaningful areas of your business.


Real-time dashboard from FoodDocs software

Remember, for PLA food packaging to work well, it's crucial to store it properly and maintain an appropriate food contact time. Food handlers can make this easier by relying on FoodDocs' AI-powered system, which automates monitoring tasks and helps maintain the quality of both the PLA packaging and the food inside.

Book a free demo now to understand how our software can help you.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can PLA be used for food containers?

Yes, PLA is a safe food substance that can be used in food containers. It is a commonly used material for food packaging due to its biodegradability and non-toxic composition. The chemical properties of the raw materials used make PLA a durable and eco-friendly alternative to plastics.

Is PLA toxic if ingested?

PLA is generally considered non-toxic and does not cause food safety concerns. However, ingesting large amounts may lead to digestive discomfort. Using PLA products as intended and not for human consumption is important.

Is PLA plastic FDA-approved?

Some forms of PLA plastic are FDA-approved for specific food contact applications. It's crucial to check the specific product's terms of food safety, certifications, and compliance with FDA regulations for the intended use.

Is PLA environmentally friendly?

Yes, PLA is an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics and it stands out for its reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

PLA’s production involves the fermentation of natural materials to create lactic acid, which is then chemically processed and polymerized to form PLA. This reliance on renewable resources contributes to a lower emission of greenhouse gases.

However, the overall environmental impact of PLA is influenced by cultivation practices, waste management systems, and end-of-life disposal methods. Responsible use and disposal practices are essential to maximize its environmental benefits and mitigate potential drawbacks.

Is PLA biodegradable?

Yes, PLA is biodegradable. It is derived from corn starch or sugar beet pulp, making it a more sustainable alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics. It is designed to break down into simpler, natural compounds under certain conditions.

PLA’s biodegradation occurs in industrial composting facilities where high temperatures, high humidity, and the presence of microbial activity are all optimized. This leads to the growth of harmful bacteria, which starts biological decomposition and breaks PLA down into carbon dioxide, water, and organic matter.

Is PLA allergenic?

PLA is considered non-allergenic and contains none of the common allergens we know about. Its most common ingredient, corn starch, is generally non-allergenic and has no adverse health effects on the human body. There are also no harmful chemicals associated with PLA.



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