If eating healthy and nutritious food is important to you, then you need to know exactly how to tell the difference between organically grown and conventionally grown produce. One way is by knowing how to read PLU, or price look-up, codes. These codes are printed on the tiny stickers you’ll find stuck to apples, bananas, and other types of produce and are identifying numbers that provide information about produce. Deciphering PLU codes is an easy way to tell if food is organically grown or conventionally grown.
Deciphering PLU codes is an easy way to tell the difference between food that’s organically-grown and conventionally-grown.
What Are PLU Codes?
PLU codes, sometimes called produce codes, are unique, four or five-digit numbers that grocery stores use to control and manage their inventory of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The codes also help cashiers identify the produce being purchased to ensure accurate prices at check out. Although PLU codes were designed for retailers and not the consumer, you can benefit from knowing how to read them.
The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) is a global organization comprised of national produce associations from around the world. They’re responsible for deciding which codes are assigned to which foods. There are currently 1,400 PLU codes used worldwide. The IFPS assigns codes using the 3000, 4000, 83000, 84000, 93000, and 94000 series.
Common PLU Code Misconceptions
PLU codes are relatively straightforward, but there are a few common misconceptions to clear up.
PLU Codes Are Not Required By Law
Although PLU codes are an industry standard that most medium and large-sized stores use, their use is not mandatory or required by law. Food labeling with PLU codes is completely voluntary, and retailers can label items as they choose. For example, many people are unaware that genetically-modified vegetables are often labeled as conventionally grown.
PLU Codes Can Identify Genetically Modified Food
There is no distinct code for genetically modified foods, and many types of conventionally-grown produce are genetically modified. 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.[2, 3, 4]
Needless to say, it would be helpful to have a PLU code that identifies GMO-based produce. Unfortunately, this does not exist. Although the prefix "8" was previously reserved for genetically modified food, its use never caught on with food producers.[1, 6] The best way to avoid genetically modified food is to shop for organic food. Organic foods are identified with PLU codes that begin with 9.
Is There a List of PLU Codes?
The IFPS has a searchable database that’s extremely helpful for finding and verifying PLU codes. It allows you to search by category, commodity, type, and variety of produce. Their website is also a resource that provides up-to-date information for new codes.
Easy Ways to Remember PLU Codes
With over a thousand different PLU codes in use, it’s difficult to memorize every single one. However, knowing their basic structure can be just as helpful.
Conventionally grown produce is assigned a four-digit PLU code starting with a 3 or 4. Organically grown produce has a PLU code starting with 9 followed by a four digit PLU code within the 3000 or 4000 series. For example, the PLU code for a conventionally grown Granny Smith apple is 3071. The PLU code for an organically grown Granny Smith apple is 93071.
Although foods with a PLU code that begin with 9 are designated as organic, looking for the USDA organic seal can provide additional peace of mind. You can also identify non-GMO food by looking for the verified seal from the Non-GMO Project – a nonprofit organization dedicated to building and preserving the sources of non-GMO products.
Not Every Number Is a PLU Code
Codes that start with a 5, 6, or 7 are not part of the standardized list of PLU codes and may have a local or business-specific purpose. The same is true for 6-digit codes. If you encounter produce codes you don’t understand, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), a trade organization that represents produce and floral companies, recommends that you contact the produce manager of the grocery store for information.
The Benefits of Local Markets & Farmer's Markets
Local markets and farmer's markets are among the best places to find fresh fruits and vegetables that are free of toxic pesticides and GMOs. Produce supplied by local farms is usually in season, recently picked, and has a short transport time. Most farmers are in tune with consumers’ preference for healthy food and use organic growing methods to keep their crops pesticide and herbicide free.
Even if you don’t have easy access to a farmer’s market, a quick phone call to the grocery store can let you know if they carry fresh, organic, or locally grown produce. Be sure to ask if there’s a particular day of the week when the new produce arrives so you can have the best selection.
Points to Remember
- PLU codes are the four- or five-digit numbers printed on produce stickers.
- PLU codes can help you distinguish between organically-grown and conventionally-grown produce.
- Conventionally-grown (including GMO) PLU codes start with a 3, 4, or 8.
- Organically grown produce starts with a 9.
- Look for USDA organic, Oregon Tilth, Canada Organic, the EU organic logo, and the Non-GMO Project seals to provide additional peace of mind.
- Read the nutrition facts label for a better understanding of what you’re eating.
What’s Your Story?
- "Produce IFPS code: a user’s guide." International Federation for Produce Standards. ifpsglobal.com. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
- "Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods." World Health Organization. who.int. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
- "The facts about GMOs." Grocery Manufacturers Association. gmaonline.org. 23 Sep. 2013. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
- Kramkowska M, et al. "Benefits and risks associated with genetically modified food products." Ann Agric Environ Med. 2013;20(3), 413-9.
- Smith J. "Survey reports improved health after avoiding genetically modified foods." Institute for Responsible Technology. International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. 2017. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
- "IFPS media release: PLU code transition – Re-assignment of price look-up codes." International Federation of Produce Standards. ifpsglobal.com. Accessed 22 jan. 2018.
- "Verified products." Non GMO Project. nongmoproject.org. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
- "10 Reasons to Shop At a Farmer’s Market." U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nutrition.gov. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.