PLU Stickers on Fruit Tell You All You Need to Know About Its Potentially Toxic History

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PLU codes, or price look-up numbers, do far more than just help a grocery store employee price your fruit properly.  These seemingly meaningless digits can tell you all about the fruit’s GMO or pesticide ridden past.
 
By paying attention to PLU codes you can tell if fruit was genetically modified, organically grown or produced with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, or herbicides.  You may even be surprised to find that your seemingly wholesome “organic” strawberries have some dirty secrets they have been hiding from you.
Be a savvy shopper by using PLU codes to confirm how your produce was created. Here are the basics:
  • A 5-digit PLU code starting with the number “3” means the produce wasirradiated (electronically pasteurized).
  • If there are only 4 digits in the PLU and they begin with a “3” or “4”, it means that the produce was grown conventionally or “traditionally” with the use ofpesticides. The last four digits of the PLU code are simply what kind of vegetable or fruit. An example is that all bananas are labeled with the code of 4011.
  • A PLU code beginning with a “6” identifies pre-cut fruits and vegetables.
  • If there are 5 digits in the PLU code, and the number starts with an “8”, this tells you that the item is a genetically modified fruit or vegetable. Genetically modified fruits and vegetables trump being organic. So, it is impossible to eat organic produce that are grown from genetically modified seeds. For example, a genetically engineered (GE or GMO) banana would be: 84011
  • If there are 5 digits in the PLU code, and the number starts with a “9”, this tells you that the produce was grown organically and is not genetically modified. An organic banana would be: 94011
No sticker? You may come across produce that have no sticker, is this any better? No, actually it might be suspicious, unless you know for sure where they come from (for example at the farmers market). Imported fruits and vegetables are always labeled. If there is no sticker, chances are that they have been removed for some reason and may be for dishonest reason!
Below is a simplified graph that you can reference.

Any number found on the sticker that begins with a 9 is there to show that the produce is organic. On the other hand, products that have numbers that start with the numbers 4 or 3 are products that are grown in a conventional way. Conventional farming relies on pesticides and chemicals which help the manufacturer get larger, faster and more lasting crops.

The Dirty Dozen Plus

These foods have very high pesticide loads and should always be purchased organic or grown yourself!

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Hot Peppers
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Summer Squash

Clean 15

The following foods were found by EWG to be relatively low in pesticide residue. They may be good conventional options for those on a budget.

  1. Asparagus
  2. Avocados
  3. Cabbage
  4. Cantaloupe
  5. Sweet Corn [Editors Note: beware of genetically modified varieties. If you want to avoid GMOs, eat only organic corn/]
  6. Eggplant
  7. Grapefruit
  8. Kiwi
  9. Mangoes
  10. Mushrooms
  11. Onions
  12. Papayas [Editors Note: beware of genetically modified varieties. If you want to avoid GMOs eat only organic papaya.]
  13. Pineapples
  14. Sweet Peas
  15. Sweet Potatoes

Now, for the number we have all been waiting for, 8. Any sticker starting with the number 8 means that the produce is GMO. GMOs mean that the food is created by a person or machine to maximize productivity. This type of food should always be avoided!

Unfortunately, the PLU system is voluntary and is not currently a regulatory mandate.  Typically chain stores will label for their own convenience but smaller fruit suppliers such as local farm stands do not always label their fruits.  This is not to say that fruit from a farm stand is safe so if you are not able to get trustworthy clarification on the origins of a specific fruit, it may just be best to avoid it.