You eat a fresh apple, and you peel off the sticker before washing it. But have you ever stopped to think about the purpose of that sticker? Maybe you should take a look before tossing it into the trash next time.
That sticker is like a fingerprint; it indicates certain characteristics of the produce, such as how and where the crop was grown and its variety. Learning how to decode the digits on the sticker—Price Look-Up (PLU) numbers—can significantly impact your health and make you a more conscious consumer.
Thankfully, learning produce language isn’t very complicated, so you can be a savvy health consumer in no time.
Each PLU number is composed of either four or five digits. While shopping, you should be most concerned with the first number, which signifies the growth methodology. The methodological possibilities are Conventional (Non-Qualified Produce), Organic, and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).
A four-digit code starting with a 3 or 4 indicates that the produce was conventionally grown, also known as non-qualified produce; a five-digit sticker that begins with zero also specifies that the item was conventionally grown. Conversely, a five-digit PLU number beginning with a 9 means that the item was organically grown. Genetically modified produce gets a five-digit number that starts with 8.
Here’s a cheat sheet to bring with you while shopping:
Starting PLU Number Growth Methodology
3, 4, or 0 Conventional
8 Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
Let’s put this into practice. You pick up three different Granny Smith apples with three different PLU numbers. They all look relatively similar, but the numbers on their stickers tell three different stories.
4139 or 04139: Conventional Granny Smith Apple
94139: Organic Granny Smith Apple
84139: GMO Granny Smith Apple
Simple enough, right? Don’t be fooled; the PLU system is not that transparent. While PLU numbers give you some information about your produce, the system is not universal and food suppliers do not need to use them. For example, until the Food and Drug Administration requires GMO food labeling, suppliers can elect to leave off the 8 in the PLU number. Some of the most common GMO produce in the US includes zucchini, yellow squash, corn, sugar beets, and Hawaiian papayas.
If you see an unmarked produce item and the farmer isn’t available to ask about its growth methodology, err on the side of caution. Even produce purchased at a farmer’s market may not be free of pesticides and genetic engineering. One way to do some detective work is to compare an item’s price to that of the same item with a PLU number or known growth methodology. Often times, organically grown fruits and vegetables are the most expensive. If you want to be certain that an item is not genetically modified, go for a certified organic version—it’s unlawful to use GMOs in organic products. Otherwise, choose items that have a “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. You can also search PLU Numbers on the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) website.
What Does it All Mean?
Of course, all this decoding means nothing if you don’t know what the terms conventional, organic, and GMO denote. Here’s a quick guide:
Conventionally Grown (Non-Qualified Produce):
Grown using synthetic chemicals, including fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and/or hormones. This enables a greater production of crops and minimizes seasonal-dependent growth.
Grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. However, “natural” pesticides are permitted. And some synthetic pesticides comply with regulations for use in organic farming.
Genetically Modified/Engineered (GMO):
Plants and animals that have been genetically manipulated with genes (DNA) from other species, including bacteria, viruses, plants, or animals. This creates unnatural gene combinations that purportedly increase crop yields and resistance to harsh conditions, but have yet to deliver such results. Instead, GMOs lead to health issues, including damaged DNA, immunity, and digestion.
What You Can Do
The take-home message is that you must be an informed consumer. Question labels and growth methods to find fruits and vegetables that support your health and environmental ethics. Personally, I prefer shopping with my local farmer who doesn’t use synthetic or natural pesticides, but doesn’t invest in an organic label because the process is costly and can be prohibitive for small local farmers. Many of these farmers don’t even use organic pesticides —just rich manure from the pigs they raise, soil, water, sunshine, and love—and focus on cultivating relationships with their regular costumers rather than spending time or resources on the sticker-obtaining process.