Packages

What Those Colored Circles on Food Packages Really Mean

Wondering what those colored circles on food packages really mean? The answer is more technical than you might think.

Reading the label

You can tell a lot from the design and color of food packaging. The color of a packet of M&Ms, for example, can tell you whether they’re peanut, regular, crispy, or caramel, while a yellow cap on a Coca-Cola bottle means something else entirely. And if you’ve ever glanced at the back of a food package, you know they’re chock full of information: the story of the brand, nutritional figures, ingredients both familiar and not, and something called a “serving size,” which I have personally never adhered to. But there’s something else printed on the back of most food packaging: several brightly-colored circles or squares that look like some sort of secret language. However, these shapes aren’t an indication of flavors, vitamins, or minerals. They’re really not there for us consumers at all, but rather, for the printing engineers.

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What do colored circles on food packages mean?

The colored circles on food packages can come in a variety of colors: pink, yellow, blue, black, orange, purple, or green, in varying shades of light and dark. Apparently, those colored shapes are called “printer’s color blocks” or “process control patches,” and they’re there to help the printing team who prints the food packaging. We consulted an expert printing engineer, Meg Schiraldi, to find out exactly what that means.

“When the packaging is printed, technicians use the colored circles to check that the printing ink is the correct [color] and quality. They compare the color to boxes printed around the world to ensure consistent brand colors,” Schiraldi explained. “Most printers only use four colors: cyan (blue-green), yellow, magenta, and black. But some printers have extra colors like orange, green, and violet. This helps them match challenging colors like Home Depot orange and FedEx purple. That’s why you may see more circles printed on some packages—they need to check each color of ink!”

So there you have it! Colored circles on food packages help printers to color match when they’re printing food packaging and retain brand consistency all over the world. That means you can reach for a yellow packet of M&Ms in Shanghai, Sarajevo, or Sydney and know you’ll be getting peanuts. Peanut M&Ms, that is. Thanks, colored circles! Without you, not all food packages would come out the same, and it sure is nice to be able to rely on at least one thing in this world. Next, find out these ways you’re reading food labels wrong.

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