So This Is What a Produce Number Code Actually Tells You

Updated 07/10/19
produce number codes
We the People Style

When I was younger, I actually suffered from oral allergy syndrome when consuming most produce—in college, I made a list on our fridge for my roommates of all the 20-some-odd fruits and vegetables I couldn't consume without my throat getting irritatingly itchy (we're talking I-had-to-pop-Benadryl itchy). Thankfully, I must have outgrown a lot of it because I'm able to eat most of these tasty things again—minus peaches, cherries, apples, and pears. I'm sad to say that during this period of time, I missed out on learning how to read produce number codes (or maybe, it's really just a rare skill that most people don't have).

So, how did I first become intrigued with produce number codes? Well, a friend mentioned to me recently that when she shops at the market for her produce, she can tell a lot from the stickers on her fruit and veggies. I, on the other hand, have just been peeling off said stickers and thinking of them as a nuisance for years. Maybe I've been wrong. Although some naysayers believe that the four- or five-digit combos are just for the cashier's use at the supermarket, others swear that these codes can tell you whether a fruit or vegetable is grown traditionally, is organic, or is even genetically modified. Well, keep reading as we debunk what produce number codes actually mean.

Where do produce number codes come from?

Like all good things, these digits have to originate somewhere. The codes are really Price Look Up Codes (aka PLUs), and they're actually assigned by the International Federation of Produce Standards, not by the individual stores themselves. And in case you're as interested in this as I am, there are more than 1450 individual codes that can be given to a piece of produce. They basically help each store maintain inventory and allow the cashiers to charge you the appropriate price per item based on what you're getting (remember, produce doesn't have barcodes, so these act sort of like that).

What do produce number codes tell consumers?

Since shopping can be a bit overwhelming in the produce section—who else has a hard time distinguishing the traditionally grown items from the organic?—the PLU codes can be helpful if you're in a rush. And if eating organic is important to you, then this is something that you need to get used to. The general rule is that if there are four digits in the code, the item was grown traditionally, with pesticides. Five digits indicate that your produce is actually organic and pesticide-free.

What does the digit "8" stand for?

Although a rumor has been trickling around that five-digit codes beginning with the number 8 indicate that an item is a genetically modified organism, don't be fooled, because that's not actually the case. Apparently, it's not out of nowhere, since this was once in the works. Those codes have been reserved so that the IFPS actually intends to use them for additional produce in the coming years, but they won't denote that something is a GMO.

Can you use the codes to avoid GMOs?

Actually, yes. Surprisingly, few items of produce are actually GMOs, but the items that tend to be are papaya and sometimes summer squash and sweet corn (although much less frequently). The way that you can avoid GMOs is by going organic and choosing food items with five-digit codes (the law prohibits the use of GMOs in organic produce).

So, did we clear up all your burning produce questions? We hope that your next shopping experience will be that much easier and that you'll be on your way to knowing exactly what you're picking up (and putting in your body).

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