With the rapid spread of diseases that the world is susceptible to now, maintaining hygienic practices and placing a barrier between food handlers and the patrons on the other side of the counter has never been more important.
Latex was the industry standard for the latter half of the 20th century, however that led to another set of problems. Those both handling the food and those eating the food were at a rather high risk of latex allergies, causing reactions that at times led to death.
With the advent of nitrile disposable gloves, latex was slowly pushed out of the marketplace and in its spot, nitrile gloves became the new go to for suppliers and consumers. Nitrile provides a far safer option for all parties and shows better resistance to a multitude of substances that latex wasn’t suited for.
However, with the synthetic nature of nitrile, it raises the question of whether or not they’re food safe.
Most people don’t realize the abundance of disposable gloves in the food industry. And that industry includes the home as well.
Food in its rawest form is often handled by people wearing nitrile. Crop separators, oyster shuckers, and butchers are the main examples that come to mind. These individuals are usually protecting themselves from the parasites and diseases that often arise from handling raw foods, especially meats, seafoods, and some raw vegetables.
As food makes its way from the source to the distributors, employees don nitrile gloves for packing and shipping. At this point, the purpose is dual sided, protecting workers from the danger of raw foods and the end consumer from the germs on the workers hands.
Trucks, trains, and freight containers deliver the bulk shipments to grocery stores and wholesalers across the world. Grocery workers routinely use nitrile gloves as they are unpacking boxes and handling raw foods.
Delis and meat counter workers for instance, use gloves to prevent cross contamination while bakers use gloves to keep dough from clumping on their hands and icing from staining their skin.
Then, as food winds up in the home or at a restaurant, chefs and cooks use gloves as a means for preventing cross contamination, protecting themselves from raw meat, and for hygienic purposes while handling someone else’s food.
Basically, from start to finish, nitrile gloves are present from the beginning to the end of a food products life.
As we addressed in a separate article, the instance of allergic reaction in the context of nitrile is incredibly rare. When compared to the other disposable glove options such as latex, the risk is infinitesimal.
So few cases of allergic reaction to nitrile occur every year that the CDC and NIH have difficulty assembling a focus group to study the perpetuance of the allergy.
Even in the cases that have been reported, there is also a chance that latex contamination caused the reaction, but nitrile was deemed the cause.
In context of how much food is handled by nitrile gloves compared to the instance of allergic reaction, the effects are negatable, preventing an exorbitantly higher number of illnesses than they cause.
Acrylonitrile-butadiene rubber, or nitrile for short, is a chemical copolymer that is emulsified in water and bonded to create the strong, flexible and very impermeable product that we know today. Those big words tend to incite worry, but they pose little to no risk.
Acrylonitrile is an organic compound, composed mostly of carbon and hydrogen, which are also two of the most prevalent compounds in the world around us and the universe. In bulk, raw form, this compound only poses a risk to those exposed to high levels and generally experienced skin irritation, water eyes, and in extreme cases, dermal burns. However, once it has been bonded to butadiene, those effects are virtually eliminated.
Butadiene is another carbon-hydrogen monomer that is originated in a gas form and condensed into a liquid for processing. As with Acrylonitrile, exposure to this chemical alone causes irritation, water eyes and fatigue. Also, as above, these effects are muted once it has been joined with other monomers.
Once these two chemical compounds have been joined, creating a copolymer, they are emulsified and extruded to produce a synthetic rubber. The bonds created are incredibly strong, eliminating the risk of the chemical components migrating to food.
In multiple tests of various nitrile glove brands, the contamination found on food products by the gloves chemical compounds were labeled ND, or not detectable.
With workers and home cooks routinely use knives, work with hot foods, and grab edges of tables, counters and bar tops. These interactions create a danger of pieces of a glove making its way onto someone’s plate, posing a choking and hygienic hazard.
Fortunately, nitrile is the strongest form of disposable glove available. The copolymers we discussed earlier form the strongest synthetic rubber that can still be molded and used as a glove.
Nitrile shows an incredible resistance to puncture and tearing, which is also why the medical field has overwhelmingly switched to the compound for their uses. When compared to latex, the risk of nitrile tearing off and being cut is miniscule.
Nitrile as a substance has been proven routinely to be food safe, however there are some considerations that need to be made to ensure that safety.
Society has certainly come a long way from the days of a sweaty, bearded man making food with salmonella and e-coli swarming his bare hands.
Food poisoning as a result of improper food handling and the spread of food borne illnesses have been steadily on the decline, and gloves have greatly influenced that downtrend.
Nitrile gloves have been a large part of that trend due in part to their strong and resilient nature, and the reduction of latex in the marketplace.
An industry once seen only as a medical product has migrated into various fields and the food industry is by far the second largest end user of nitrile gloves in the world. The availability, cost, strength and longevity of nitrile has encouraged many business owners to supply them to their workers and we’re all safer because of it.
Although we cannot definitively say that nitrile gloves pose absolutely no risk to any user or patron of a user, it’s important to remember that some people have experienced cardiac arrest from water that was too cold. Nothing in this world comes without some form of risk.
What we can state is that when compared to not using gloves, and when compared to latex gloves, nitrile gloves pose the lowest risk of the options.