Fruits and Vegetables

Decoding the Little Stickers on Fruits and Vegetables

In All Health Watch, Diet and Nutrition, Featured Article, Health Warning

Those little stickers on produce can be annoying. Sometimes they are hard to remove. Or when you take them off, part of the peel comes off with them.

But the decals actually contain important information. They tell you how the produce was grown. But you have to know how to decipher the numbers.

The stickers contain a four- or five-digit number. It is known as the price look-up (PLU) code. The codes have been in use since 1990. They are standardized throughout the world.

They are designed to make inventory control easier for grocery stores. And they allow check-out cashiers to accurately ring up produce without having to visually identify different varieties of fruits and vegetables.1
But the PLU code also contains valuable information for customers who know how to read them. The code will always start with one of four numbers: 3, 4, 8, or 9.2

  • A code beginning with a 3 or a 4 means the produce was conventionally grown.

The code 3107 on the photo above tells you the navel orange was conventionally grown. This means chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides were used to produce it. It may also mean a fruit or vegetable has been genetically modified (GMO).

  • A code that starts with a 9 means the item is organic.

No chemicals were used in its production. And it is non-GMO.3

Since you pay extra for organic produce, the PLU code is good way to confirm that you’re getting the genuine article.

  • A code that starts with an 8 tells you the item is genetically modified (GMO).

As a practical matter, you will hardly ever see a sticker number that starts with 8. That’s because the GMO designation is voluntary. And distributors don’t want to call attention to the fact that a product is GMO because it carries a stigma with some customers. So they instead give GMO produce a conventional label that starts with a 3 or 4.

How Can You Avoid GMO Produce?

GMO means that the genes of the produce have been altered. Growers do this to improve size, appearance, flavor, and shorten the time needed to reach maturity.

Sometimes they genetically modify a crop to allow a certain pesticide to be used. For example, GMO corn and soybeans are often modified to make them immune to the weed killer Roundup. That way, when Roundup is sprayed on a field, it kills all plants except for the GMO crop.

But there’s emerging evidence that GMO food is harmful. A study published in the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine found that when people switched to a non-GMO diet, their health improved:4

  • 85% reported better digestion.
  • 60% reported less fatigue.
  • 48% reported better mental focus.
  • 47% reported less joint pain.

The fruits and vegetables most likely to be genetically modified include corn, soybeans (edamame), zucchini, yellow squash, and papayas. Stick to organic versions of these.

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