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What Do the Numbers on Produce Labels Mean?


PLU Code – What is It and Is it Important?

Fresh Produce

The label of numbers glued to loose fresh fruits and vegetables is known as a PLU code which stands for Price Look-Up Code. These numbers, assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) and put together by the Produce Marketing Association, have been in existence since 1990. If the produce is sold in a container or packaged in a way that does not allow you to choose the items you specifically want, then the packaging gets a barcode.

Food labeling is completely voluntary. Stores and farmer’s markets are not required  by law to put stickers on their produce. The glue used for PLU stickers is food grade, the stickers themselves are not.

How to Read the PLU Codes

Conventionally grown produce, where pesticides are generally used, have a 4-digit PLU number that begins with the number 3 or 4. The other three numbers are for the grocery store’s electronic inventory system.

The prefix “9” combined with a 3000 or 4000 series signifies that the item is organic. Organic means that no pesticides are used, cannot be grown with sewage sludge-based fertilizers (possibly containing heavy metals), and that the food cannot be genetically modified. They also cannot be irradiated. These produce items fall under the standards created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for organic foods.

A 5-digit PLU number with a prefix of 8 indicates Genetically Modified (GMO).  This can include many varieties of commonly eaten fruits and vegetables not found in nature. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, and microorganisms whose DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. According to a 2013 report by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 70 to 80 percent of foods contain GMOs. Although research on the health effects of GMOs is controversial, there is reason to believe they may have negative health consequences.

Produce with conventionally grown PLU’s can still be potentially genetically modified. Since there is no requirement to label it, many companies avoid using the 8 prefix. Buying organic is the only way to make sure you avoid GMO produce.

What You Need to Know

You’ll find organic apples next to conventional apples most often with a huge price differential. You must read labels on containers of beverages, canned goods, and all packaged foods for ingredients. Organic ingredients should be clearly listed on the packaging, although you will not see PLU codes.

The following foods with conventional labels, that begin with the number 3 or 4 or 8, require higher levels of pesticides to thrive and are heavily sprayed:

  • Peaches, nectarines, cherries, strawberries, apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, celery, spinach, kale, lettuce, and potatoes.

Buying Organic Isn’t Always an Option

These fruits and vegetables have been determined by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to have the least pesticide residue:

  • Asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, mushrooms, onion, papaya, pineapple, sweet corn, sweet peas, sweet potatoes, watermelon

Genetically modified crops have had their DNA altered using genetic engineering techniques to make them more resistant to viruses and insects, more tolerant to herbicides, delayed in ripening, among other things.

If you choose to avoid GMOs, recognize the most common GMO fruits and vegetables:

  • Corn, papaya. Potatoes, soy, zucchini and yellow summer squash.

Washing for Safety

Not only do you have to consider pesticides but also organisms from soil or handling – from farm to shipping to store – can cause contamination in both conventional and organic produce. Washing produce before peeling, cutting, or eating any fruit or vegetable can help eliminate pesticides and reduce the risk of food-borne diseases such as E.coli and Listeria.

The best time to wash fruits and vegetables is right before you use them. Unwashed produce stays fresh longer.

Wash your hands first with soapy water. Hold the produce under plain running water. Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce such as melons. Throw away the outermost leaves of lettuce or cabbage.

Storing Produce

Most vegetables should go in the high humidity drawer, while most fruits should go in the low humidity drawer. In the high humidity setting, the slider closes a window, and keeps more air and moisture inside the drawer. In the low humidity setting, the slider opens the window, and lets more air and moisture out of the drawer.

When storing berries, they can stay fresh much longer by immediately removing any that are spoiled or beginning to and transfer unwashed healthy-looking berries to a glass jar with a tight lid. Only wash the ones just before you eat them or put in a salad.

Onions, once cut, can be placed in a resealable bag in the vegetable drawer.

Produce that Should Not be Refrigerated

Keep these uncut and unpeeled on the counter for best nutrition and flavor:

  • Melons, apples, pineapple, white and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, unripened peaches, apricots, nectarines and plums, thick-skinned squash (like acorn and butternut), oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes (but not bunched together), bell peppers (stored in a paper bag in a cool place).
  • Treat herbs like basil, mint, parsley like bunches of flowers by putting the stems in a glass with fresh water.
  • Hard herbs such as rosemary and oregano can be wrapped in a paper towel and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator crisper drawer.

The Best Produce Picks

Now that you can understand what the PLU code means, you can decide what produce you will buy, shell out your money and still not be satisfied with the texture, flavor or shelf life. That’s another lesson. If you’re interested in learning about that, please comment below.

Visit our educational Holistic Health website and Holistic Practitioner Directory.

Andy & Vinny DiLorenzo

About Us

As holistic dentists, we've recommended products and services that supported our patients’ health for decades. In experiencing our own health challenges from mercury toxicity, we worked closely with many natural, alternative, and integrative health practitioners who aided our recovery as well as our patients’. We built this site to provide you with a simple-to-use, comprehensive, informational, and functional resource for your physical, emotional, and spiritual health & well-being.

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