Here’s What Those Coloured Circles on Food Packages Actually Mean

A supermarket mystery—solved!

You can tell a lot from the design and colour of food packaging. The colour 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, nutrition facts labels, 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-coloured circles or squares that look like some sort of secret language. However, these shapes aren’t an indication of flavours, vitamins, or minerals. They’re really not there for us consumers at all, but rather, for the printing engineers.

What do coloured circles on food packages mean?

The coloured circles on food packages can come in a variety of colours: pink, yellow, blue, black, orange, purple, or green, in varying shades of light and dark. Apparently, those coloured shapes are called “printer’s colour 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 coloured circles to check that the printing ink is the correct [colour] and quality. They compare the colour to boxes printed around the world to ensure consistent brand colours,” Schiraldi explained. “Most printers only use four colours: cyan (blue-green), yellow, magenta, and black. But some printers have extra colours like orange, green, and violet. This helps them match challenging colours like Home Depot orange and FedEx purple. That’s why you may see more circles printed on some packages—they need to check each colour of ink!”

So there you have it! Coloured circles on food packages help printers to colour 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, coloured 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 the real reason suit jacket pockets are sewn shut.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest