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  • Scripps Health

Cracking the Produce Sticker Code

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

What produce labels tell us about your vegetables and fruits

When you reach for a piece of fruit or vegetable at the grocery store, you may notice a small sticker on the skin with numbers. The number is called a PLU code, or a price-lookup code. You may be surprised by what that produce sticker reveals.

PLU codes have been used by supermarkets since 1990 to help checkers identify fruits and vegetables so they can charge the correct price and maintain better inventory control. But the sticker is not just for checkout.

The four- or five-digit numbers identify the produce, indicating size, growing method, type of food (apple or orange for instance) and variety (such as a Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious apple).

The voluntary labels tell you whether you are purchasing organic or conventionally grown produce.

  • Organically grown fruits and vegetables have labels with five digits starting with the number 9.

  • Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have labels with four digits.

  • If the code contains more than five digits, it is not part of the internationally standardized system.

Organic vs. conventional, what’s the difference?

Organically grown means natural fertilizers were used instead of synthetic chemicals.

Organic farming uses compost and manure instead of chemical fertilizers. It uses insects and birds, and/or traps instead of synthetic pesticides. Crop rotation, mulching and hand weeding replace synthetic herbicides. Organic produce is usually grown without genetic engineering or modification.

Conventionally grown means synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were used to promote growth and prevent disease.

“Food labels can tell you a lot about what you’re eating and help you make well-informed food choices for you and your family,” says Vikki Lane, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley.

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides applied for three years prior to harvest, according to the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If you’re shopping on a budget, organic foods tend to be more expensive, du