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Food for thought…part 5

In this final installment of the Food for Thought series, we’re taking a closer look at produce.

The health benefits of fresh produce are widely publicized … from being low-calorie snacks to sources of helpful antioxidants. But as you navigate your way through the produce aisle, do you know what?s lurking behind those fresh leaves and bright colors?

Know the code ? the secret language of produce

Understand the numbers on the product look-up (PLU) codes. All produce has small oval stickers on them with a series of numbers. Anyone who has gone through the self-service checkout lane at the market, knows that those numbers help identify the item along with the price per pound.

But those little numbers tell you more than just the price, they contain a wealth of ?secret? information. PLUs were developed by the International Federation for Produce Standards, a coalition of fruit and vegetable associations that started in 2001. There is no regulatory body for the use of PLUs and grocers are not required to use them, but most do.

PLUs consist of four or five numbers. Four numbers starting with the number three or a number four indicate produce grown in conventional methods, for global distribution and sustained with pesticides. Five numbers, starting with the number nine, are organic, and five numbers starting with the number eight are genetically engineered/genetically modified (GE/GM). The PLU codes also indicate the type of produce, variety (white grapes or red grapes for example), distribution information and price per pound. For organic and GE/GM varieties, the numbers nine and eight respectively are added as a prefix to the existing PLU code for the conventional version of that type of produce.

Conventional/Traditional Produce

Conventional crops are fed synthetic fertilizers, which force the plant to grow bigger in mass, in a shorter period, thereby not allowing the plant the time to take up the same full amount of nutrients as organic crops.

Some examples:

Alfalfa Sprouts (4514)

Granny Smith Apple, small (4138)

Beefsteak Tomato (3061)

California Sweet Onion (4165)

Yellow Banana [including Cavendish] (4011), small (4186)

Organic Produce
Five numbers starting with a “9”

Organically grown produce means that the produce has been grown without the use of artificial chemicals, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and do not contain the residues of toxic pesticides. Organic produce follows the principles of ecological sustainability.


An organically grown California sweet onion would bear the number 94165

GE & GM Produce
Five numbers starting with an “8”

Genetically engineered or genetically modified produce means that genetic material (whether natural or manufactured) is introduced into the DNA of a host species, a procedure that results in disruption of the genetic blueprint of the organism.

The FDA describes GE/GM produce as ?an extension of traditional plant breeding [or grafting, but] involves direct modification of DNA … [and makes] it possible to direct and predict changes without introducing … undesirable traits … and will allow scientists to introduce genes from essentially any organism into a plant.”

There are many who caution against consuming GE/GM foods because of concern over allergies, toxicity, an increase in viruses and resistant bacteria, and yet unknown adverse effects on human and animal biology.

A GE/GM Beefsteak Tomato would bear the number 83061.

For some produce contain residual traces of pesticides even after washing, something that we tend to think is a reliable way to protect ourselves. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) studied 43 fruits and vegetables, among which many stapes in our family?s diets ? including peaches, apples, lettuce, spinach, carrots and cucumbers. It?s important then, that the next time you?re in the produce aisle, consider what those little oval stickers may mean for the health of your family.

Learn more about understanding the organic label.

Inexpensive ways to buy organic.

Genetic engineering: The future of foods?

Get/View the EWG?s produce report.

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