Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cracking the PLU Code

Jennifer Koslo, PhD, RD, CSSD, CPT
FT Faculty School of Health Sciences
Health and Wellness/Nutrition

Do you know how to decipher those little stickers with PLU codes found on fruits and vegetables? According to the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), “price look-up codes” or PLU’s have been used by supermarkets since 1990 to make it easier for the cashiers to ring up your produce while at the same time serving as a way to make inventory control easier, faster and more accurate. PLU codes are used for items you buy from bulk bins like bulk grains or nuts as well as for all loose fruits and vegetables. 

Over 1300 codes are in use and they consist of either 4-digits or 5-digits. The numbers indicate what the item is, the price, where it was grown and how it was grown. If it is a 4-digit code then it was grown using conventional practices. If it is a 5-digit code beginning with a 9 then it means the item is organic. For example, a conventional banana might be labeled 4895 while an organic banana would be labeled 94895. Interestingly, the IFPS also created a code for items that are produced using genetic engineering that begins with an 8 (e.g. 84895). Have you ever seen this on a PLU sticker? I know I have not. This is because no one uses it! The general consensus among Americans is that they want to know when they are eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and would avoid them if they were labeled. However, this would hurt the bottom line of the big manufacturers so all efforts at labeling legislation have been blocked by manufacturers and politicians up to this point.

So where does that leave you? If you prefer organic produce you can look for the PLU’s that start with a 9. Organic produce cannot be altered using genetic engineering. But if you can’t afford to buy organic and would like to know if your conventional produce is altered, are there other ways to find out this information? Yes and no. Currently there are only 4 GMO vegetables/fruits in the US: papaya from Hawaii, some zucchini and yellow squash and some corn on the cob. For other non-produce type foods you can look for the non-GMO project seal

 You can also download the non-GMO shopping guide from here:

If you want to be able to recognize a few PLU codes from the produce and bulk food you purchase frequently, then you can use plug the codes directly into a search wizard at the IFPS website to learn more about individual items:

Happy produce sleuthing!


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