What is the difference in purity betwen lab-grade and food-grade when talking about potentially consumable compounds?

As an example let's take ascorbic acid powder: if it's marked as lab-grade, does that mean it is also fit for consumption?

In particular, I'm wondering whether lab-grade supersedes (and/or improves) a food-grade labeling, or if they are two totally different criteria? Can I say lab-grade > food-grade?

If I can't say lab-grade > food-grade, then what is the actual difference between the two?


3 Answers 3


So-called food-grade stuff is meant to be consumed by humans. It's important that every single compound of a foodstuff is food-grade or at least GRAS. In the European Union the law giver has defined the state when a compound is good for consumption as "safe".

Lab-grade chemicals often contain toxic materials, so when something is called lab-grade it is not safe per definition.

For example: $\ce{NaOH}$ is widely used in preparation of foodstuff as well as in the lab. Now it's a fact that lab-grade (standard) $\ce{NaOH}$ (Sigma Aldrich) contains a certain amount of heavy metals. On the other hand, food-grade $\ce{NaOH}$ will not contain any heavy metals (usually food-grade $\ce{NaOH}$ will have a purity of more than $99\%$ while standard $\ce{NaOH}$ pellets are sold with a purity of less than $97\%$). So using lab-grade $\ce{NaOH}$ in foodstuff is a crime (at least in the EU).

So my advice is: Do not use lab-grade materials for any food-related applications.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Perfect. Nick's answer was very good, but I think you make it even clearer. The impurities are what matters here. So lab grade is not > food grade. It's a completely different classification and both classifications have their own (unrelated) goals with regards to the impurities left in the material. $\endgroup$
    – Casper
    Jul 27, 2012 at 12:07

Generally laboratory grade reagents have not been prepared with human consumption as a consideration, but with regard to their use as a chemical reagent.

For example, $95\%$ ethanol is mostly ethanol and $5\%$ water. This is fine for cleaning equipment, or using as a solvent for a TLC. If you want to use ethanol as a reagent, however, you want to use absolute ethanol (which is much more expensive). Absolute ethanol is NOT safe for human consumption though, as the water has been removed from the $95\%$ (which is the azeotrope, i.e. as far as you can get through distillation of water/ethanol alone) through a process which involves adding additives such as benzene. Benzene won't cause side reactions in the way that water would, and so absolute ethanol is much better for a lab reagent than $95\%$, but worse for consumption.

In the same way, any chemical which is prepared for use as a reagent will contain impurities which don't generally cause side-reactions, while for consumption you want the impurities to be non-toxic.

  • $\begingroup$ Most laboratory grade reagents will also say "not for human, food, or pharmaceutical use". $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2012 at 14:40

Background: I'm a chemist and have worked for companies in Pharma, Research Chemical Supply, and Dietary Supplements.

Lab Grade is different than Food Grade, yes. Normally Food Grade is a LOWER quality than Lab Grade.

Lab Grade normally has exhaustive testing on it to determine all impurities. The lab is using this as a reagent and they need to know all that.

Food grade means that it won't cause human disease. So really all they need to know is if there are too many heavy metals or too many bacterial contaminants. The limits are typically higher for food grade.

For instance, when I worked at a Pharmaceutical facility we worked to get a material accepted by FDA as a food grade material and not a Pharma Grade or Reagent Grade. The main reasons were insect and metal parts. The FDA regulations are much more relaxed for food grade and you can have quite a few more of each in the product for food grade than either of the other two.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Chem.SE! Thanks for posting; please stick around! We'd be glad for you to contribute your expertise to the site. Check out the tour and help center for more information about the philosophy of the site and how it works and once you reach 20 reputation feel free to drop by the main chatroom and say hello. Enjoy! $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    May 24, 2017 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ I purchased lab-grade Potassium Bicarbonate with a grade of 99.5% and then compared it to the purity of food-grade and found food-grade is listed as 99.0% purity. Very interesting. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2021 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Food grade might usually have lower purity but the point of being food grade is which impurities. Some impurities that matter when people are going to eat the substance are very different to the ones that matter in the lab. So absolute ethanol is the lab is very pure compared to whiskey but it often contains benzene which people really should not consume. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Nov 2, 2022 at 14:42

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