A nutrition pro decodes what you'll see on those little stickers on your favorite fruits and veggies.

Karla Walsh
April 15, 2020
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Credit: Getty / d3sign

Attention, shoppers in Aisle 1: You can learn a lot about your purchase if you look a little closer.

Turns out, those little coded stickers on your banana can help you learn more about your fruit: "A 4-digit code means conventionally grown, while a 5-digit one starting with 9 means organic and a 5-digit code starting with 8 means genetically modified," says Dan Vaché of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Type of food, size, growing method and species are often all related to a produce PLU code, the specific name for these informative strings of numbers. Since the early 1990s, most grocery stores and food retailers have voluntarily used PLU codes to speed up checkout times and track stock.

"The numbers are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards, and while they are not intended to convey information to consumers, if one is interested, the data is there. These codes really are meant to be tools for accurate pricing at the cash register, inventory control and category management," says Tamika D. Sims, Ph.D., the Atlanta, Georgia-based director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council.

If you're one of the nearly 50% of shoppers who regularly use self-checkout kiosks, you can utilize the convenience factor of PLU codes to speed up your checkout time too. Rather than typing in the fruit or vegetable's name and finding it in the gallery, simply press "Key in Code," enter that four- or five-digit number, weigh or enter the number of produce items and you're all set.

So What's the Deal with Organic vs. Conventional Produce?

Since very few fresh produce items sold today are genetically modified (meaning they've been bred using genetic technology), the big difference noted by the PLU codes is whether the food is grown conventionally or organically.

  • Organic produce is grown with natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, and relies on natural biological or mechanical weed control. Its soil must have been free of prohibited products for three years before gaining organic certification from the United States Department of Agriculture. All organic items are non-GMO.
  • Conventional produce can be grown with the help of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to combat potential diseases and boost growth.

Sims and her team at IFIC unpeeled the market to find out how Americans feel about the difference between the two in their 2019 Food and Health Survey. They focused purely on nutrition—not the environmental impacts (the latter of which, the United Nations notes, can be mitigated quite a bit by choosing organic over conventional).

"Approximately 15% of Americans claimed that in the past 10 years they have changed their diet by eating more fruits and vegetables. Still, many Americans still don't consume the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, so I think it's a public health disservice to encourage people to eat only organic produce," says Sims, and the current position statement from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees.

According to a study in the journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, promoting all organic, all the time can lead to unhealthy consequences.

The bottom line, Sims concludes, is that there are no demonstrable nutritional or safety differences between organically or conventionally grown produce. A review of studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that organic produce doesn't have a nutritional advantage over conventional produce, and that eating organic produce is not associated with better health outcomes.

"The list of pesticides that can be used for organic produce is different than for conventional, but they're all made up of federally regulated compounds that are designed to kill or repel insects and other pests. People should focus more on eating enough fruits and vegetables and less on how they are grown," says Sims.

So go ahead and grab that four-digit plum.