Cracking the Produce Sticker Code

Learn what produce labels do and don’t tell you about your fruits and vegetables

Learn what produce labels do and don’t tell you about your fruits and vegetables.

When you reach for an apple at the grocery store, you may notice a small, sticker on the skin of the fruit with numbers. The number is called a PLU code, or a price-lookup code, and you may be surprised by what that sticker indicates.

PLU codes are used by supermarkets to help checkers identify what you’re buying so they can charge you the correct price and maintain better inventory control.

In recent years, the codes were modified to help shoppers identify how the produce was grown. When looking the label, you’ll see one of three types of numbers:

  • Four-digit numbers: this means the produce was conventionally grown produce
  • Five-digit numbers starting with 9: this produce was grown organically
  • Five-digit numbers starting with 8: this indicates the produce was grown from genetically modified plants

What's a GMO and what does it mean for your diet?

Produce that is a genetically modified organism, or GMO, has been genetically engineered in a lab to have certain characteristics. These characteristics can include resistance to certain pests and molds; a different color than the original plant; faster growing times; larger fruit; or even have higher values of certain vitamins.

The genetic manipulation of some foods has raised concerns about whether or not genetically engineered foods are as safe to eat as conventionally grown foods. The topic is hotly debated. In fact, lawmakers in nearly two dozen states are considering whether to require labels on GMOs, so consumers who choose not to eat genetically engineered foods don’t have to guess what’s what when buying groceries. However, greater transparency may not end the debate.

“When it comes to GMOs, essentially, the cat is already out of the bag,” says Steven Pratt, MD, an ophthalmologist with Scripps Health and the author of the best-selling book SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life. “They are in most things you eat already. If you have a regular soybean farm next to a soybean farm with genetically modified plants, the wind, bees and other insects that carry the pollen between the farms won’t keep them separate. There’s no way to strictly differentiate.”

What produce labels don't tell you

While consumers can look at PLU codes to better understand how their food was grown, these labels are probably not telling the whole story. The codes were created with grocers in mind, not the food shopper. The use of PLU codes is optional, and they are not currently regulated by any government body. There are also no existing laws that require farmers or food manufacturers to report whether or not a plant is genetically modified.

Dr. Pratt notes that when buying your produce, it’s more important to distinguish between organic and non-organically grown foods. While they are very much the same when it comes to nutritional value, choosing organic produce not only reduces your potential exposure to pesticides, but also is better for the environment.

Fortunately, the standards for organically grown produce are closely monitored by the USDA. Look for signs indicating that what you’re buying is certified organic; produce that is certified organic must, by law, be grown under strict, pesticide-free conditions. If it has a PLU sticker, check for a five-digit PLU code beginning with 9.

“The nutritional profile of a fruit or vegetable can depend on several factors, such as when the food was harvested, how long it has been in transit from the field to the grocery shelf, refrigeration, drought or normal water conditions, or how much sun the food exposed to before harvest,” adds Dr. Pratt. “The best produce is what you can grow and eat fresh from your own backyard. If you can’t grow your own, organic and locally sourced produce is the best. Imported fruits and vegetables can sometimes be six or seven days old before you have a chance to buy it. Flash frozen produce is only about 20 minutes old before it’s frozen, so it’s often fresher.”