There are lots of good reasons to take a closer look at food packaging. You might be trying to lose weight or to eat more healthily (the first and fourth most commonly broken New Year’s resolutions, apparently). You might wish to avoid eating “anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce,” as Michael Pollan has suggested. You might be scouring food packages—in vain, so far—for Mark Bittman’s dream food label. Or maybe you just want to check that your Twinkies—which may or may not be graced with eternal life—are still fresh.
Referred to as “printer’s color blocks” or “process control patches,” this grid of color swatches indicates which hues of ink were used to produce the design on the package. The printer checks these colored circles or squares to determine whether a package conforms to the necessary color scheme for the product. In the case of any problems, the color blocks let both the human and computerized printers know if a deficiency (or surplus) of color caused the issue.
The color blocks are usually pictured as circles on most bagged products and squares on boxed goods, with the most common being black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, since they’re the basis of most colors produced by printers. If the bulk of the package is printed in one or two other colors, they’ll usually turn up in their own blocks (called “spot colors”), too. Bags of Cheetos, for example, will almost always have at least one orange block, but usually two or more in different hues.
If you don’t see a set of color blocks on your bag of chips or box of cookies, you don’t need to worry. The decision to include this element is an option, not a rule—though most large-scale, mass-produced products have some variation of color blocks on their packages. Some companies also crop off the color blocks during the packaging process.
Oh, and if you see the color blocks, you’ll probably find a symbol that looks like the cross-hairs of a rifle scope somewhere on the package, too. These “register marks” (or “position marks”) are used to align all of the colors printed on the packaging—yet another helpful tool for the printer, but not really of any use to consumers.
Both man and machine usually check these color splotches. According to Dillon Mooney, technical consultant for Printing Industries of America, “Modern presses have automated the process, but the operator typically makes the final adjustments.” The colors that appear most often are the “process colors” black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. As my diabolical Hewlett Packard printer has on rare occasions proven, these colors can be combined into many other colors.
But what about the package of Cheetos I just ate—take that, Pollan—which features not just the four process colors but also a range of subtle, discriminating orange hues? These are known as spot colors, which are “premixed for consistency,” according to Mooney. The orange on Cheetos’ packaging is a naturally big part of the brand’s image, so it’s applied as its own color. (Is this same ink used to color the actual Cheetos? Probably not, though I don’t know for sure.)
Why do some packages not have any color patches? It’s just a printer/client preference, says Christenson. But keep in mind that colors might have been on a printed portion of the package that was later trimmed off.
What about the ominous cross-hairs that occasionally appear on packaging, seen here on a cereal box’s inside flap? These “are register marks, also called crossmarks or position marks,” says Christenson. They “help make sure the colors are aligned.”
Finally, let’s look at the “e” that is found on most food packaging in the fabled, genetically-unmodified lands of Europe (and on many European products exported to the U.S.) If you have no idea what it means, don’t feel bad—neither do most Europeans. In an informal survey of about two dozen European friends and family, none had ever noticed this symbol, or had any idea what it meant. Asked to guess, they wondered if it meant that the number reflected the weight of the contents without the container included, or if it denoted something eco-friendly, or if it perhaps indicated that a product was legal for sale across the European Union.
Of course, even the most Europhilic American might wonder about the usefulness of a symbol that 1) appears on nearly everything in a supermarket and 2) is a complete mystery to almost all consumers.