Most shoppers recognize the PLU code on produce as simply a sticker that makes checking out faster by letting the cashier input or scan the number. The numbers on the sticker provide a lot of valuable information about the produce. By learning what the numerical codes mean, shoppers can quickly determine if the produce has been genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides or grown naturally.
Produce with a PLU code that has only four numbers is designated as traditionally grown. However, this method, also known as conventionally grown, refers to using accepted modern practices for commercial farming.
Accepted practices include using pesticides to prevent bugs and other pests from damaging the fruits or vegetables. For example, traditionally grown bananas will have a PLU sticker with the numbers 4011 on them indicating they have been exposed to pesticides.
What if the PLU sticker on the bananas has the number 8 in front of the 4011? The number 8 signifies that the produce has been genetically modified. Genetic modification occurs in a lab before the produce is grown. Scientists use genetic engineering to permanently alter the produce’s natural composition. Reasons for genetically modifying the produce includes making it more pest resistant and for making the fruits and vegetables larger.
If the PLU sticker on the bananas lists the number 94011, the 9 signifies that the bananas are organic. Organically grown produce has not been altered in any way by genetic modification. Producers do not use any pesticides while growing the product either. Even though organically grown produce is safe to eat, the PLU sticker is not and should be removed before eating. The stickers use a food-grade adhesive that is not harmful, but shoppers may wish to wipe the produce with a cloth or wash it to remove any sticker residue.
The PLU stickers help shoppers to determine if the produce has been exposed to pesticides, genetic modified, or is organic. However, not all produce treated with pesticides carries the same risk. The Environmental Working Group has devised two lists that helps people know which fruits and vegetables are likely to contain elevated levels of residual pesticides.
One of the group’s lists, referred to has the Dirty Dozen, names the worst produce for pesticide contamination. The high-water content of many of these fruits and vegetables allow them to absorb the pesticides through the outer skin instead of remaining on the surface where it could be washed off. The outer peel of apples did not keep it off the dirty produce list. Peaches and nectarines also made the list. Strawberries were named one of the worst offenders while celery ranked among the worst for vegetables.
Opposite of the Dirty Dozen list is The Environmental Working Group’s Clean Fifteen. The Clean Fifteen are the traditionally grown fruits and vegetables least likely to carry excessive amounts of pesticide residue.
For some of the produce, the reason is due to their own natural resistance to pests which means less pesticides are used on them. The outer layer of some fruits and vegetables also provides a thick enough barrier that prevents any absorption of the pesticides.
The husks of sweet corn and the tough outer skin of avocados helped them top the clean list. Cabbage, sweet peas and pineapples also made the list.