Reading Produce Stickers

By Sharon Naylor

March 30, 2012 6 min read

As Americans strive to eat healthier and feed their children natural and organic foods, fruits and vegetables are finding their way onto more grocery shopping lists.

According to the American Dietetic Association, 49 percent of Americans say they're "doing 'all they can' to achieve a balanced diet," and 38 percent know they should make a greater effort. With so many well-intentioned produce-shoppers picking up organic bananas, apples, grapes, papayas and iron-rich leafy greens, nutrition experts trumpet a great warning: Are those fruits and vegetables truly organic? Are they genetically modified?

Supermarkets now supply a greater variety than ever of organic foods, and it's very important that you read the produce stickers to know not only where foods were grown, but how they were grown. The Food and Drug Administration certifies "organic" in several different ways, and some foods labeled as organic haven't necessarily been grown without pesticides and fertilizers. They may be grown using pesticides and fertilizers on a government-approved list.

That little sticker on those apples, grapes and other produce is called a PLU code, or "price lookup number," and it reveals the true health factors of foods you're buying to have a healthier diet. PLU codes are assigned by the Produce Marketing Association through the Produce Electronic Identification Board, making produce origins and growing conditions clear.

According to private catering and personal chef company YaDa Chef, which cooks only with organic ingredients, "those little tags will tell (you) how the item is grown, be it conventionally, organically or through horrible genetic modification."

YaDa Chef's website explains how to read the stickers:

--"Items which are conventionally grown (without organic methods) have 4-digit PLU codes that begin with the number 3 or 4."

--"Items which are organically grown have codes which are 5 digits long and begin with the number 9."

--"Genetically modified items are identified with 5 digit codes too, but begin with the number 8." So, according to YaDa Chef, a banana with the following code, 84011, has been genetically modified.

Looking more deeply at these formulas, a four-digit number on produce reveals that it has been grown using government-approved toxic chemicals sprayed on to kill insects. It isn't organic, even if the packaging says it is.

A five-digit number beginning with 8 reveals that the produce has been genetically engineered to make that tomato, banana or other item grow even in adverse field conditions and look fresh on store shelves for a longer period of time.

Genetic modification actually changes the produce item's natural ripening process so that the store can stock an older piece of fruit, for instance, that may look fresh but is actually quite old, with less flavor and less nutritional value. When you eat these items, you ingest the result of genetic modification.

Produce marked with a five-digit number beginning with 9 is free of genetic modification and agrichemicals, grown to an organic standard approved by the FDA, which has put increasing focus on educating consumers to understand that agricultural chemicals do seep into produce items' skin, with the chemicals then present in the flesh of the fruit. These chemicals can settle in human fat tissue, building over time to damage health. Some agrichemicals are known carcinogens, posing a risk of cancer and other diseases.

With that danger brought to mind, you likely feel more inclined to pay slightly more for produce marked on the package and on the sticker as approved organic.

"I use the phrase '9 is fine' to help me remember the code of organically grown, non-genetically modified foods while shopping in the grocery," says homemaker Jill Evanetti. "And I've taught my kids to use the phrase '8 is not great' when they're helping me food-shop."

Some healthy eaters have chosen to buy or supplement their organic produce purchases by joining certified organic produce co-ops in their neighborhoods, or frequenting organic farms, farm stands and farmers market displays. Find farmers markets near you at, a resource that will also connect you to organic farms' websites, which explain their organic growing practices and share what's in season, what's on sale and also how to join their produce co-ops.

Healthy eaters are also establishing their own home vegetable, herb and fruit gardens, where they plant organic seeds and plants, nurture them with certified all-natural products, and enjoy the satisfying crunch and delectable taste of tomatoes, bell peppers, kale and other produce they've grown themselves.

Knowing the produce label formulas will help you make informed decisions when you are shopping at a grocery store. And if scary labels encourage you to explore local organic farms, you also help local farm families thrive and survive in these challenging financial times.

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