For most of us, the little stickers on fruits and vegetables are just flat out annoying.  I don’t know what kind of adhesive they use to make those stickers, but they are not uniformly easy to remove.  And I know they don’t degrade rapidly, because they are in my home garden compost.

It turns out, though, that those little stickers do more than tell the check-out scanner what price to charge.  Called, appropriately enough, PLU codes (Price Look Up), the numbers also contain some pretty interesting information for the consumer.

Codes can be four or five digits long, and will start with a different number.  Let’s look at what those numbers mean!

A five-digit number that begins with a 9 means the item is organic.   This is always going to be the healthier choice.  It may come with a higher price tag, though, so the question is: 

“Is this an item that I really need to buy organic?”  It can be hard to balance the initial cost of organically grown produce against the longer term cost of “conventional” agriculture.  What to do? 

Go to this site for the latest info and guide on what to buy organic, and when conventionally-grown produce is ok: //www.ewg.org/foodnews/ 

four-digit code that begins with a 3 or 4 means the item is probably conventionally grown.  Here’s an example, comparing regular and organic lemons.  

– Small regular lemons are coded 4033; large ones are coded 4053.
– Small organic lemons are coded 94033; large ones are coded 94053.  

A conventionally grown bell pepper is definitely going to be high in Vitamin C, and contain health-promoting compounds like beta-cryptoxanthin.  Unfortunately, it will also come with a host of chemicals on it that will increase your risk of developing cancer.

five digit-code that begins with an 8 means the item is genetically modified.  

That means genes from other organisms have been spliced into the DNA of the original food item.  You probably won’t see this code.  Why?  

Only GMO versions of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, papaya and squash are now widely sold.  And these are labelled as conventional, because use of the PLU codes is optional.  So they are used more as a cost-saving convenience for the grocery distribution chain.     

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