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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Printing on Food for Valentines Day

Food is the quickest way to my heart. I think I’m not alone. Since Valentine’s Day is just a few weeks away, I thought I’d take a look at the technologies used for custom printing on M&Ms, Sweethearts, and sheetcakes. After all, the only thing more intimate than shared food is personalized food.

How Do They Print on M&Ms?

Have you ever wondered how they print M&Ms? When I went online today I was actually surprised. I had expected that, since M&Ms are easily crushed, they would not be printed with a technology requiring contact with the candies. I was wrong. The article I read described a process whereby the round M&Ms sit in little wells on a moving conveyor. Rubber printing plates on rollers print food dyes on the individual candies. Apparently, the wells keep the individual candies separate and at the same time minimize any crushing by the rollers.

That said, the description of the plates, in the online article, as being made of rubber suggests a flexographic process of some sort. (Keep in mind that flexography is actually a variant of letterpress, or relief printing. The rubber plates have a raised image area that picks up ink and then deposits it on the substrate—the food.)

The article did not use the word “flexography.” However, the reference to rubber plates sounds like the raised surface of a flexographic plate, which is also affixed to rubber rollers. In addition, such a process would involve minimal pressure compared to the metal rollers of offset custom printing.

For short-run, personalized messages, such as might be appropriate for Valentine’s Day, a trip to the Mars website (Mars makes M&Ms) yields information on inkjet printing with food grade inks. Presumably the short-run, variable-data nature of such personalized custom printing lends itself to inkjet technology, which might not be as cost-effective for the longer runs of printed candies.

How Do They Print on Sweethearts?

Another traditional holiday food for Valentine’s Day is the Sweetheart, the heart-shaped candy on which amorous sayings have been printed. How are these made?

I made the erroneous assumption again that the process would involve inkjet because I thought the pressure of any contact-based commercial printing technology would crack or crush the hearts. (Keep in mind that with inkjet printing, the spray nozzle never actually touches the substrate. It just sprays ink on the item—be it paper, ceramic, or whatever else.)

My research yielded the following information. The candies are actually mixed and shaped into hearts, and then printed with custom printing plates. The articles referred to changeable type, which suggests to me a relief process, like letterpress or flexography. The ink used is obviously food-grade pigment. Interestingly enough, the article noted that the candies are not baked but rather are left to sit and harden, along with their printed Valentine’s Day sayings.

I went to the NECCO website to see how custom printing orders are made. Based on NECCO’s reference to the number of lines and characters (“Custom Sweethearts can be printed with two lines of text with 9 characters per line, and each NECCO wafer can be printed with two lines of text with 11 characters per line.”), I would assume that even for short press runs a letterpress option is employed. If the technology were inkjet, I don’t believe there would be such a limitation on the number of lines and characters.

Presumably, this makes for consistent branding in the typeface and point size. Regardless, I would assume that some sort of carrier is used, much as the M&Ms travel through the printing press in plastic wells on a carrier sheet. And as with Mars M&Ms, both generic and personalized Sweethearts are printed with food-grade inks or dyes.

How Do They Print on Sheetcakes?

Another traditional holiday food for Valentine’s Day is cake (as it is for birthdays and Sweetest Day celebrations). Printing on sheetcakes is easy now with the advent of inkjet custom printing and food dyes. Unlike M&Ms and Sweethearts, however, the icing on cakes will be crushed by even the lighter (than offset printing) pressure of flexography or any other relief printing technology.

Therefore, inkjet is ideally suited to printing on frosting. However, in the past it was only possible to print food dyes onto carrier sheets. The images had to then be transferred to the frosted sheetcakes with heat, which sometimes yielded poor results (like a skinning over of the frosting). Now (according to food-printing blogs), inkjet printing can be used to print directly on the frosting with no intermediate transfer step. This is ideal.

Presumably, of course, the inkjet printers used for printing on cakes have the printheads suspended much higher above the substrate than the ink printheads of desktop printers used to image text and photos on paper.

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