Food-grade lubricants

Sushmita Dutta, Kline & Company | TLT Market Trends January 2022

What does the increasing focus on food safety mean for these lubricants? 

The food and beverages industry is being shaped by a growing global population. In today’s world, transnational companies have manufacturing operations that are spread across the world. It is, thus, not surprising that food supply chains and food manufacturing processes have become increasingly complex. The stringency of government regulations concerning food safety, coupled with the imperative of strict penalties for noncompliance, have added to the complexity of maintaining these conditions across the supply chain.

Food-grade lubricants represent one of the ways food safety is ensured. These lubricants are categorized as industrial lubricants that are considered safe for incidental contact with food and other products consumed or ingested by human beings or animals when these lubricants are utilized in equipment or machinery that is used to manufacture, pack, treat, process or transport these products.

Here, we explain what we mean by the previous italicized terminology in our definition of a food-grade lubricant.
Industrial lubricants. The term “food grade” causes confusion; it does not signify that these lubricants are made of edible material. Rather, food-grade lubricants are just like any other industrial lubricant in that they are comprised of base stocks (mineral or synthetic petroleum) and additives.
Incidental contact. Ideally, these lubricants should not come into contact with food or other consumable products. In the case of incidental contact, however, health risks will be significantly mitigated if “food-grade” lubricants, i.e., lubricants that meet National Science Foundation (NSF) guidelines, are used.
Food and other products. The use of food-grade lubricants began with the food processing industry, but over the years, with growing awareness of healthier lifestyles, its use expanded to include pharmaceuticals, personal care products and animal feed manufacturing.
Equipment or machinery. The primary reason for using food-grade lubricants—or any other lubricant—is to protect the internal surfaces of the machinery. Lubricants control friction, wear and corrosion. Thus, food-grade lubricants serve the dual purpose of ensuring equipment performance and food safety.

Food-grade lubricant applications
Food-grade lubricants are utilized throughout the food processing supply chain. In mature countries, they have been used in food packaging and bottling plants for quite some time. In Europe, it is increasingly required that the machinery and equipment utilized in food manufacturing plants be deemed safe for food contact (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Types of applications of food-grade lubricants.

Evolution of food-grade lubricant classification standards
Lubricants in the food processing industry were first formally regulated in the 1970s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved lubricants used in meat and poultry plants on the basis of guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration in keeping with the Code of Federal Regulation.

The USDA issued ratings for lubricants depending on whether there was a chance of incidental contact (USDA-H1) or no chance of contact (USDA-H2) with the food products being processed. In 1999, the NSF assumed responsibility for certifying food-grade lubricants. The NSF—a U.S.-based non-profit organization that is one of the most respected for testing, auditing and certification—classifies safety standards for food-grade lubricants under its non-food-compounds program (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Timeline of lubricants in the food processing industry.

While most countries have their own food and heath safety regulations and governing bodies, the NSF is currently the only organization that standardizes sanitation and food safety requirements internationally. World over, in the absence of any other global food safety certification program, lubricant manufacturers and consumers refer to the NSF guidelines to safeguard production of food, water and consumer products and ensure that they have no adverse impact on health.

NSF certifications of lubricants
While the NSF defines five major categories of lubricants used in the food processing industry, only four of them are generally considered food grade. The certifications issued by the NSF are overwhelmingly used in many countries around the world. NSF H1 is considered the primary food-grade certification with regard to incidental contact with food, food packaging and personal care products during their manufacture. The NSF H2 category is currently obsolete and is not considered a food-grade certification (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. While the NSF defines five major categories of lubricants used in the food processing industry, only four of them are generally considered food grade.

Halal and Kosher certifications of lubricants
With an increasing number of people adhering to Islamic and Jewish dietary laws, demand for Halal- and Kosher-certified food products is growing. These two certifications are primarily used in relation to food products, meat products, cosmetics and personal care products, food ingredients and food-contact materials.

Islamic and Jewish dietary laws not only apply to foods and beverages but also to the machines and environment where they are produced. Thus, food-grade lubricant suppliers are required to have Halal- and/or Kosher-certified lubricants available for customers that manufacture products requiring these certifications.

Food-grade lubricants market
We estimate that the food-grade lubricants market in the select regions covered in our recently published study, Food-Grade Lubricants: Analysis of Major Markets, ranges between 100 kilotonnes and 150 kilotonnes. Of these regions, Europe—particularly the European Union and the UK—accounted for the largest share. The region’s leading position is not surprising, given that it is home to some of the top food and beverages and personal care products, in addition to food-grade lubricants manufacturing companies, in the world. Further, the region is recognized as being a champion of causes related to health, safety and protecting the environment (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Demand for food-grade lubricants in select countries, 2020.

Impact of COVID-19 on the food-grade lubricants market
Food and beverage processing, the leading consumer of food-grade lubricants, is considered recession-proof, as the industry addresses an essential need. Of all the application sectors, the personal care industry was affected the most severely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, the pandemic did not have a severe impact on the consumption of food-grade lubricants. However, it would be inaccurate to paint all the regions with the same brush and conclude that none of the markets witnessed declines in the demand for food-grade lubricants. For example, Europe, unlike other regions, saw its consumption of food grade lubricants contract slightly in 2020.

Thus, the food-grade lubricants market was not unscathed by the global health crisis. Lockdowns, movement restrictions and business closures (restaurants and other food catering businesses) in different parts of the world caused supply chain disruptions, logistical problems and raw material constraints.

Food-grade lubricants market outlook China and India are global leaders in industrial lubricant consumption, but, unfortunately, due to the lack of regulations addressing food safety in these nations—in particular, concerning food-grade lubricants—the market is niche in these countries. Food-grade lubricants accounted for less than a 1% share of the industrial lubricants market in each country.

Potentially, the demand for these lubricants could be much higher in developing and emerging countries if food-safety regulations—and enforcement of these mandates—are made more stringent. Increased consumer awareness about the ingredients used in food manufacturing also will drive the necessary changes in these regions relating to food safety. China and India could each see their food-grade lubricants markets expanding to close to double their current size, based on these factors.

The growing international food-products trade will present lubricant suppliers with opportunities to serve those customers that manufacture products for export markets. In order to reap the rewards, lubricant suppliers must be knowledgeable about the hygiene and dietary regulations of other countries so they can better serve their customers. For example, Halal-certified lubricants are required by companies that sell food products in the Middle East. However, formulation challenges due to limitations on both permissible ingredients and their quantities in food-grade lubricants present blenders with challenges as they strive to develop high-performance products. Further, the costs associated with researching, developing and approving a new food-grade lubricant can be very high, posing entry barriers to the market.

Despite these obstacles, any company possessing both a strong distribution network and an on-target marketing approach can be successful, assuming that the company is able to develop quality products with the necessary certifications and offer these products at a reasonable price.

The insights and data in this article are sourced from Kline’s study, Food-Grade Lubricants: Analysis of Major Markets, designed to assists lubricants marketers in identifying opportunities within the food-grade lubricants market of major countries.

Sushmita Dutta is project manager-Energy for Kline & Company based in India. You can reach her at Kline is an international provider of world-class consulting services and high-quality market intelligence for industries including lubricants and chemicals. Learn more at