How to Decipher PLU Codes on Fresh Produce

Here's what those barcodes on fresh fruits and vegetables mean.

a photo of an apple with a bar code sticker
Photo: Getty Images

If you've ever tried to peel that barcode sticker off a ripe plum only to have it rip off part of the fruit's skin, then you already have a great mnemonic device for remembering the name for those stickers—just drop the "m" from plum and you have "PLU." PLU stands for "Price Look Up" but those stickers are more than just barcodes that make it easy for a cashier at the grocery store to ring you up in under a minute. If you take a closer look, you'll find a series of four or five digits that can tell you a lot of information about the produce you're about to purchase or eat, primarily whether it was conventionally or organically grown.

PLU codes can help consumers like you make more informed decisions about the foods they consume. And the good news is that there are a few simple hacks for figuring out what all those numbers mean. Read on for all the details.

What Are PLU Codes?

PLU codes are a series of numbers that identify produce sold in retail stores like supermarkets and grocery stores. As mentioned above, the acronym PLU stands for Price Look Up, and the stickers contain barcodes that help cashiers quickly scan items at a point of sale system, or POS.

These codes were implemented in 1990 and are regulated by the International Federation of Produce Standards. Some of the digits in PLU codes on produce have the same meanings throughout the world, and there are also specific codes that apply only to produce grown in the United States. There are currently over 1,400 unique PLU codes that have been assigned to various types of fruits and vegetables. You can find a PLU codes list on the IFPS website and even conduct your own PLU code lookup.

The PLU codes used range in the 3000, 4000 and, soon, 83000 and 84000 series, according to IFPS.

How to Read PLU Codes

Now that you know what PLU codes are, you're ready to learn how to read them. You can get very specific about what every digit in a PLU code means, but there are generally two types of PLU codes that consumers are interested in knowing about, and these can tell you whether a fruit or vegetable was grown conventionally or organically. These are the types of codes we'll be breaking down for you in this article.

Four-Digit PLU Codes: Conventional Produce

Four-digit PLU codes are some of the most common. On the sticker, you will see a 4-digit code in 3000 or 4000 series of numbers. This type of PLU code signifies that a particular fruit or vegetable was grown conventionally rather than organically. This means synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides might have been used by the farmers growing the produce.

There is nothing inherently wrong with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and conventionally grown produce uses products that are considered safe for humans by the USDA. As well, little difference has been found between the nutritional value of organically versus conventionally grown produce.

Five-Digit PLU Codes: Organic Produce

Five-digit PLU codes indicate that the particular fruit or vegetable has been grown organically. This will appear as a "9" prefix plus the 3000 or 4000 series number, the IFPS explains. This means that the 9 is added onto the conventional PLU code. So, for example, the PLU code for conventional large Hass avocados is 4225, while the PLU code is 94225 an organic large Hass avocado, notes California Avocados.

There's an assumption among many U.S. consumers that organic produce is grown without any pesticides or fertilizers, but that isn't necessarily true. However, a five-digit organic PLU code guarantees the consumer that no syntheticmaterials were used in growing the fruit or vegetable. In other words, five-digit PLU codes tell you that only naturally occurring materials, like manure, were used to fertilize the produce, and that either plant-based pesticides, like neem oil, or sometimes even pest-eating animals were used to deter or kill pests. (Read more about organic labeling from the USDA.)

As previously mentioned, there is very little to no scientific evidence supporting the idea that organic produce has any more nutritional value than conventionally grown produce. However, some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers may contain heavy metals, like cadmium, according to a 2017 review in the journal Annual Review of Public Health. If you are trying to avoid or diminish the amount of heavy metals in your body, you may want to consider purchasing organic produce. Fortunately, you now know that any produce with a five-digit PLU code sticker on it is organic.

Future PLU Codes Will Be Used

Thanks to a growing demand for PLU codes worldwide, the IFPS will run out of available numbers, they explained in a press release in 2015. That's why in the future they will start to assign PLU codes with an "8" prefix once they run out of available PLU numbers. On the PLU User Guide on their website, the organization notes that new PLU codes for conventionally grown items will be 83000 to 83999, and new PLU codes for organic produce will receive a number of 84000 to 84999. And yes, when this happens, it may make it more challenging for consumers to quickly identify whether your choice is conventional or organic at the store.

Bottom Line

PLU codes are one of the many systems put in place to not only protect consumers but also to help them make informed decisions about what foods they put into their bodies. While there is little scientific evidence to support any claims that organic produce is healthier for you, the International Federation for Produce Standards understands that these distinctions are very important to a lot of people, and that's why these codes have been implemented. At the very least, being aware of these different PLU codes can help you avoid paying a lot of money for an organic tomato when you just wanted a conventional one to throw at a bad stand-up comedian.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles