Why Is Nitrogen Gas (Worryingly) Used in Food Packaging?

Dried packaged foods such as crisps and nuts are often filled with excess nitrogen to extend the shelf life of these products. 

Nitrogen — a colourless, odourless gas — is used to make things like explosives and fertilisers. These items aren’t exactly staples on our shopping list, making it puzzling to think the same gas has long been used in food packaging. Why is nitrogen gas used in food packaging? In short, this is to help preserve food and keep it fresh, ultimately giving items a longer shelf life. In this blog, we’ll break down the entire process of using nitrogen gas in this way and why we’re taking a different approach to help protect the food industry.

Why Is Nitrogen Gas Used in Food Packaging? The Real Truth

We started using nitrogen gas in food packaging when demand for food increased, opening up mass production. Major supermarkets and food stores stopped prioritising local products when the need for food surpassed what farmers in a close radius could produce. When this happened, distributors needed to ensure they could deliver food of the same quality and freshness, even though they were shipping product over large distances (and sometimes overseas).

Nitrogen was seen as an easy way to accomplish this, effectively sucking out moisture (and excess oxygen) so dry foods, in particular, could remain crisp and fresh.

The most common way of introducing nitrogen into food packaging is via a nitrogen generator. Nitrogen generators allow nitrogen to be added to the packaging process quickly and efficiently, making them ideal for a factory setting.

Although you might not have realised that non-naturally occurring gas is added to most foods, this is the case throughout most of the food production industry. Adding gas to packaging — despite how harmful it might be — has been continually adopted by distributors because of its cost-efficiency. Adding nitrogen is another way to streamline a supplier’s site and ultimately, it offers a quick path to profit. Since more product can be made and shipped without people complaining about a difference in quality, suppliers have championed this practice without giving much thought to the damage it can cause to the consumer and the environment.

Creating packaging using gas like nitrogen is indeed detrimental to the environment. The process manipulates the natural form of the product, which is called “modified atmosphere packaging” to represent this. Modified atmosphere packaging, as the name  suggests, changes the state of the atmosphere, reducing oxygen while supplying harmful gas — all in the name of providing the artificially “fresh” products that we over-consume.

Why Using Nitrogen Gas Is Bad for the Environment

Nitrogen pollution is often overlooked as carbon pollution takes centre stage in the news. But that doesn’t mean this type of gas isn’t deadly.

This seemingly innocent gas helps to contribute to particulate matter (small particles that are far from safe for human consumption). These particles greatly compromise air quality, causing a thick haze in some of the world’s most treasured National parks and cities. As nitrogen becomes part of the environment, the air becomes more acidic, causing devastating effects on natural resources. Among these are:

  • Imbalancing nutrients in coastal waters and lakes (as they become acidic)
  • Damaging weak crops and woodlands sensitive to any habitat change
  • Increasing the effects of acid rain (a visible form of air pollution that causes thick smog in the atmosphere)
Acid rain

Acid rain is one of the most visible forms of climate change where entire cities are engulfed in a thick layer of what looks like smoke.

Knowing this, it makes it hard to understand why we continue to use nitrogen to extend something as trivial as shelf life. This is without considering nitrogen’s impact on climate change as a whole. Be wary as eating a diet full of animal products is likely to make your nitrogen footprint even greater since the same gas is used in crop fertilisers.

How We Can Learn to Package Differently — without Nitrogen

Nitrogen is used in products where air needs to be effectively locked into the package to maintain the food’s optimal state. If you think of foods with a typically long shelf-life such as crisps, nuts, cheese and other dried foods that are processed, you’ll have a list of foods where nitrogen is commonly used to meet the rising need of packaged goods.

To eliminate the use of nitrogen in food packaging, we need to change two things:

  1. The materials we use to package products (and also to make this industry-wide).
  1. Our collective mindset about food consumption and our opinion on long shelf life foods.

These challenges involve those in the industry and its consumers — which makes getting rid of nitrogen in food packaging a long-term challenge.

Natural vs Nitrogen Packaging

It’s no secret Takeaway Packaging is a huge advocate (and supplier) of naturally packaging products with our mission centring around reducing the environmental impact of waste. However, it’s important to look at why modified atmosphere packaging takes an initial hit on the environment to ultimately reduce overall waste.

If food packaging is made more stable by the use of nitrogen, then the package enables the product to remain fresh for a longer period. In turn, this can stop bacteria from growing and help to prevent spoilage. In this sense, this practice does prevent food waste, so surely it’s a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, even though the addition of gases like nitrogen can create more opportunity for a low food waste record, it doesn’t counteract the air-spoiling impact of the process. The nitrogen generators used on a packaging site emit far too much gas to help the environment (even in the face of the world’s food waste problem).

Instead, we use natural packaging that doesn’t require any harmful processes to procure or assemble food protection. Our materials come in the form of sugar cane and unbleached kraft pulp that we have no issues shouting about. Our clients never use nitrogen to enhance a product artificially — a behaviour we would love to see adopted by major supermarkets and restaurants across the world.

Changing Our Packaging Perceptions

Since adding gas to packaging was first made popular by our obsession with packaged foods, consumers have the power to reverse the process by changing their buying habits.

With the recent rise of veganism, we’ve already seen the masses turn to diet as a key way to be more environmental. The same people should understand that eating packaged goods can have an equally disastrous effect on the planet (despite a lack of meat).

Each time you open a packet of crisps, dried fruits or nuts in a similar container, you’re releasing nitrogen into the environment without knowing it. Just like carbon emissions that most environmental activists are familiar with, this action pollutes the air, compromising the vital source of oxygen we rely on to live.

Although packaged products like these might be marketed as healthy, desirable sources of food, it’s key to remember looks can be deceiving. Often, products altered by gas will be starved of oxygen, meaning they only appear to be fresh because of the fake environment they are housed in. Do you really want to eat oxygen-deficient carbs with an unusually high gas content?

snack packaging

Snacks marketed as a healthy alternative could contain harmful gases depending on how they’re packaged. 

If you feel passionate about keeping the earth’s air free from pollution, you should curb your crisp addiction and opt for foods are either without packaging or in a natural casing. Snacks like fresh fruit and nuts in a canister are a safer bet for avoiding contradictory behaviour.

Ready to discover gas-free alternatives? Browse our sustainable product range and say goodbye to needless air pollution.