How to Ship Food Without Dry Ice / Alternatives

Shipping frozen food is a delicate task, a balance of product quality, shipping cost, and delivery times. Traditionally, dry ice has been the go-to solution for eCommerce brands, but it’s unsafe, expensive, and associated with a laundry list of regulations. These are a growing brand’s worst nightmare.

But there are alternatives, namely gel packs and insulated shipping containers, which provide better protection from spoilage at a lower cost and less regulatory red tape. We’re going to explore these other options and offer up a few tips to help you save money, time, and product as you ship frozen foods.

Why Consider Alternatives to Dry Ice?

Dry ice, while effective, comes with substantial safety and handling issues. At an average rate of $1.00 to $3.00 per pound, it’s surely not the most cost effective solution at scale. And once you factor in safety & handling issues, international shipping regulations, and environmental considerations, other options begin to seem much more appetizing.

For example, if you want to ship food to Canada, you’ll need to comply with certain packing instructions & obtain other licenses just to cross the border. And if you switch between carriers, you’ll have to sign further agreements with them and potentially alter your packing strategy. 

Whether it’s dry ice or another alternative, you need to consider a few standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which will vary based on the type of food you plan to transport. Frozen items must be maintained at or below freezing temperatures (0°F) throughout the delivery process while refrigerated food must be kept between 0°F and 40°F.

A Low-Cost Alternative to Ship Food Without Dry Ice

Dry ice is expensive, hard to handle, and heavily regulated. And if you’re a growing perishable eCommerce brand, those are three things that you desperately need to avoid. Instead, opt for the one-two combination of 1) gel packs and 2) insulated containers.

Gel Packs

Gel packs are non-toxic, flexible thermal packs that maintain a refrigerated temperature during shipping. The water-based gel is sealed within a thin plastic pouch that prevents food from being frozen too harshly, a common complaint about dry ice. For eco-conscious brands, several vendors even offer organic or biodegradable gel pack options.

How They Compare to Dry Ice

Gel packs offer a more controlled and consistent cooling effect compared to dry ice. They release coolness steadily over the entire transportation duration, which reduces the risk of spoilage. Dry ice, on the other hand, sublimates at extremely low temperatures, often causing freezer burn.

Gel packs are much safer to handle than dry ice, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By packing food with gel packs, you can avoid the hassle of strict shipping regulations that apply to dry ice. And though you won’t notice the effects immediately, they’ll have a positive effect on your margin. You won’t have to use as many special labels, pay for as many licenses & permits, or submit to heavy fines that come with dry ice use.

And when paired with the right insulated shipping container, gel packs are an unstoppable, cost-effective packaging solution.

Where to Source High-Quality Gel Packs

You shouldn’t just use any gel packs when shipping food thousands of miles. Do your research and ask other DTC operators if they have any vendors they recommend. Inquire about samples and test them out with various types of food & package volumes before placing a bulk order. And if it’s within your budget and aligns with your brand’s sustainability views, opt for vendors that have recyclable or biodegradable gel packs.

Insulated Shipping Containers

EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) foam containers are a popular choice for many DTC brands because they’re lightweight and offer great insulation. You can also fit your shipping boxes with insulated liners, a reflective film that helps keep refrigerated foods cold and warm foods hot. A third option, which tends to work for smaller consumer-packaged goods (CPGs) like chocolates, cheese, and thin seafood is reflective metalized film bubble mailers. They’re like a refrigerated version of poly mailers.

Keep in mind that these containers need to be packed with gel packs; they won’t be able to keep food cold over long periods of time without an internal cooling component.

How to Choose the Right Container

If you only have one SKU, choosing the right size should be easy enough, unless customers tend to order multiple of the same products. If you have a range of food types & volumes, you’ll need to acquire a handful of different container sizes in order to handle every order.

They should be large enough to fit the products and cooling elements, without crushing the food or leaving enough space where the items will shift during transit.

Assess the containers for durability as well. They should be tough enough to withstand transit without becoming damaged, unless in extreme cases. The goal is to protect the perishables inside, anything less than that is a failure of the product.

Ultimately, most decisions in eCommerce come down to cost; this is no different. While quality factors in, the container cost directly impacts your overall shipping expenses. Find a balance between quality and affordability that you and your customers can live with.

5 Tips for Packaging Food

If you use a reputable shipping company with temperature regulation controls and your food is packaged in high-quality, insulated containers, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. But it never hurts to have peace of mind. Check out these other tips that will guarantee that your perishables stay fresh from the warehouse to your customer’s front door.

Pre-Cool Your Containers & Refrigerants

Start by freezing your gel packs or other refrigerants at least 24 hours before packing so they’re at “peak” temperature when the order is packed. At the same time, precondition your insulated shipping containers by storing them in a cooled environment before packing. This will eliminate any warm air pockets within the container and reduce the initial load on the gel packs or other cooling tools.

In a perfect world, you’re able to pack the orders as close to shipping times as possible. But this isn’t always the case, and the less time that the products are exposed to ambient temperatures, the better. Pre-cooling your packaging can significantly reduce the likelihood of spoilage and ensure that your products arrive as fresh as they left the warehouse.

Strategically Arrange the Food

Arrange your products strategically within the insulated container to maximize air circulation and cooling efficiency. Place the frozen gel packs on the bottom layer, creating a cold foundation for your perishable goods. Stack your products in a way that limits overcrowding, allowing cool air to circulate freely between items. Insert additional gel packs or refrigerants between layers of food to create a consistent temperature throughout the container. If there’s room, line the edges with gel packs to reduce the risk of warm spots.

If you’re having trouble fitting an adequate amount of refrigerant in the insulated container, you’ll need to acquire larger containers. You could also speak to your product packaging company about smaller or thinner packaging, which may save you thousands of dollars over the course of the year while also allowing you to easily pack the boxes with gel packs.

Seal & Insulate Tightly

Once packed, seal your packages securely to retain the cold air and prevent external heat from spoiling the food. Use high-quality sealing tape that doesn’t tear easily. And if you have excess room, line the interior edges of the box with an extra layer of insulation, such as bubble wrap or foam inserts, to reinforce temperature stability.

Use a Shipping Aggregator

Even armed with the perfect packaging, shipping food is not easy (or cheap). But with a shipping aggregator, like ShipFare, you can control your entire perishable logistics operation from a single platform.

Over 1500 DTC brands use ShipFare to find lower rates, faster routes, and same-day delivery, saving themselves tens of thousands as they scale. With access to major domestic carriers like UPS, FedEx, and USPS, as well as local couriers & international vendors, you can deliver more perishable goods faster and cheaper, nearly on autopilot.

Double Check Regulations and Compliance

Saving on costs is difficult enough, but don’t forget about packing regulations & compliance, especially if you’re shipping internationally. Each transit provider & country has their own set of regulations, permits, and licenses that are required to ship food; it’s confusing and they can change overnight in some cases.

At ShipFare, we can help you cut that red tape, pointing you in the right direction and giving you all of the tools you need to run your business in one central platform.