Food Packaging Printing Explained

By: Mya Koch
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Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why some of MrTakeOutBags’ products can be custom printed in smaller quantities than others. And, we hear a lot of questions about why some projects have plates and set-up costs, while others don’t. So today we’re going to do our best to provide some answers to questions about food packaging printing.

Methods for Food Packaging Printing employs a range of different printing methods for different products. Below is an explanation of the different printing methods that we can employ.

food packaging digital printingDigital Printing

Some products can be custom printed using a digital press, which is kind of like a big, expensive, technically advanced copier machine. 

The product (a cup for instance) is fed into the press and ink is sprayed onto the product (the cup) in very precise patterns, based on directions that are translated from the electronic art file. 

Digital printing usually (not always) is printed in “four color process.” Basically, that means that four colors: Cyan (light blue), Magenta (light red), Yellow, and Black inks are combined to give the illusion of a full-color image. 

Obviously, there are no plates or tooling involved in the digital print method. So, set-up costs are low. 

One downside of the digital print method is that the cost per unit doesn’t decrease much as your print quantity goes up. It costs the same cost per case to one case of cups as it does when printing 25 cases – if they’re produced using the digital print method.

food packaging flexographic printingFlexo Printing

Flexo (flexographic) printing is the most commonly employed ink printing method for food packaging. 

Imagine a printing press that is set up with a rubber stamp (the plate) that’s wrapped onto a cylinder on the press. The rubber stamp (plate) is then coated with ink in the image area. That inked image is then transferred to the printing surface.

If the image being produced contains more than one color, a separate rubber stamp plate is made for each color and wrapped onto separate printing units on the press. The press operator makes sure that each color is lined up (registered) to the color from the preceding unit(s). 

Ink colors are often identified using the “Pantone” color system or a CYMK equivalent.

Depending on what sort of paper, plastic or product is being printed, sometimes the colors don’t line up just perfectly. So, you might hear us warn you that the registration on a flexo printed project can float within a specified tolerance.

The upside of flexo is that the press can run very fast. The result is that the more you run, the lower the cost per piece.


food packaging printing hot stampHot Stamp Food Packaging Printing

Hot Stamp custom printing is an excellent choice for low-quantity branded boxes and bags.

This process requires a metal etched plate of the art being imprinted. So, the image needs to be fairly simple line art. 

The plate is heated and then pressed under pressure through a film that carries a layer of the preferred color. The heated, raised area of the plate’s image basically irons the film’s color layer onto the box or bag. 

Hot Stamping is a manual, hand-fed process, so it’s best suited for lower quantities.

Inline vs Post-print

Some projects are best suited for printing on the paper or plastic before the product is formed, folded and glued This is referred to as “inline printing.” 

And, some projects are best suited for printing after the product has been formed, folded and glued. This is called “post-print.”

inline printingInline

In-line printing happens at the manufacturing facility prior to the box, bag or cup being produced. 

This process is best for larger quantity orders, and it usually requires longer production and delivery times.

Big advantages of in-line production are:

  • Bags can be printed on the face, back, sides and bottom.
  • It’s a better cost-per-unit option for large volume quantities
  • Some products just don’t avail themselves to being printed after the product has been formed – like semi-auto boxes, or ripple cups


Post-print custom printing is accomplished by printing on a product that has already been folded, glued and finished in its final form. 

Post-print can be accomplished via a number of printing methods, including digital, flexo or hot stamp – depending on the specific item and the quantity.

It’s important to keep in mind that post-printing on a product means that the printing is taking place on an imperfect surface. So, there may be some occasional imperfections in the print caused by subtle variations in the fold, glue or forming of the product. 

Post-print also is limited by the “live print area” available for imprinting. A finished product may have folds or seams that the printing equipment may not print well over top of. For instance, a fully assembled shopping bag already has handles glued inside the bag, and a printing plate will not contact the paper evenly. In these cases we have to have a certain margin away from the “non-flat” parts of the bag for proper contact.

custom coffee cupsWe Can Help You with Branded Food Packaging Printing

Your Packaging Advisor can help you to sift through all of the possible print options and processes to find the best path for you and your business. We handle custom packaging for most foodservice businesses like restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, food trucks, caterers etc. We also help non-food specific business like retail stores, hotels and resorts, colleges and universities and professional offices (doctor, dentist, law, realty.)

Our team of trained experts is here to take your call Monday through Friday from 9:00 am EST until 6:00 pm EST at 888-321-2248. Or, send us your info via our Custom Lead Form.

Mya L Koch is a Sales Order Specialist for who has vast experience as a journalist, writer and editor for publications such as The Wilmington Star-News and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where she managed staffs of young writers and photographers and helmed daily, monthly and annual publications seen throughout the region. Her writings have been published in magazines, newspapers and most recently in a hard-cover book for the national Bring Music Home initiative. She has extensive experience as an editor, manager and in retail sales. She welcomes your ideas and suggestions for her blog post as part of the BABCOR Packaging / team.

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