Those numbered stickers on your apples, pears and bananas – what do they mean? Perhaps up until now you’ve ignored them, or maybe just considered them a nuisance that you must peel off before eating your fruit or vegetables. In fact, those stickers tell you a lot about what type of fruits and vegetables you’re buying.
The “price look-up number” or PLU codes, as these stickers are called, are labels used at the point of sale to obtain the price. Perhaps more importantly for consumers, these codes also indicate the qualities for how the food was grown.
Every grocery store has standardized PLU codes administered by The International Federation for Produce Coding. Fruits and vegetables that have 4-digit numbers are conventionally grown (another term for conventional is “non-qualified”). The 4-digit codes usually begin with 3 or 4. The codes for organically grown produce begin with a 9 and have 5 digits. You’ll especially want to look for and avoid 5 digit codes beginning with 8, because that indicates the fruits and vegetables were grown using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
A conventionally grown banana’s PLU code = 4011
An organic banana’s PLU code = 94011
A genetically modified banana’s PLU code = 84011
Not all fruits and vegetables will have PLU codes. Grapes, green beans and mushrooms are some examples, as you can imagine how tedious a task it would be to label each one. However, PLU codes may be used on the package or signage. Bunched items like carrots or lettuce may have bands labeled with the PLU code.
As indicated above, genetically modified produce should be avoided at all costs. The genetic material in the food has been altered in an unnatural way, contaminating the food and genetically engineering the DNA. Unfortunately GMO foods are not always labeled, so to play it safe you want to look for foods labeled “GMO Free” or “Organic.”
Of course shopping for organic foods can be expensive, but that is why it’s good to know which foods are okay to buy conventionally. The best way to determine whether you should buy conventional or organic is to reference the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) produce ranking charts for the ‘Dirty Dozen’ (the produce containing the most contaminants) and the “Clean 15.’ (the produce with the least contaminants).
Whether you shop at the grocery store or the farmer’s market, it is important to be a food detective. Look for the codes, read labels and ask your local farmer what they use on the produce. Making informed decisions about your food can benefit your health and your wallet!