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Food Hacks

How Produce Stickers Can Help You Eat Better

May 11th, 2018

When buying produce, have you ever noticed the little stickers on the veggies and fruits?

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Pashupatinath Mishra Source: Pashupatinath Mishra

Now, I never paid much attention to these things (aside from trying not to accidentally eat them). I just assumed they gave the price and item name like most retail barcodes do.

Apparently, however, the numbered codes on these stickers (known as Price Look Up or PLU codes) convey more information than I had anticipated.

To be fair, I was partly right. These numbered stickers do offer the item name and price to the cashier scanning them, but the numbers used in the codes can also reveal some additional information, including:

  • size
  • growing method (e.g. organic versus conventional),
  • type (e.g. orange versus apple)
  • variety (e.g. blood orange versus mandarin orange).

Interested in learning? Here we go.

Four-Digit Codes

Four-digit codes, particularly those in the 3,000 to 4,999 range, indicate the produce was grown using conventional farming methods and according to industry standard. Because the agricultural standard approves the use of chemicals, items with 4-digit codes were likely grown using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and/or chemical herbicides.

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Asian Lifestyle Design Source: Asian Lifestyle Design

Five-Digit Codes

Five-digit codes are essentially composed of the regular 4-digit codes, but have another number tacked on the front. For the most part, you only hear about two numbers starting 5-digit codes. These are the numbers 8 and 9.

Starting with 9: Five-digit codes starting with the number 9 indicate the produce item was grown organically. Organic growing differs from conventional methods in that natural processes are used in place of chemicals to promote growth.

For example, organic farmers use things like compost and manure instead of fertilizers; insects and traps instead of chemical pesticides; and methods like crop rotation and hand weeding instead of herbicides. Organic farmers also do not genetically modify their goods.

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Yum Universe Source: Yum Universe

Starting with 8: Many sources claim that 5-digit codes starting with 8 indicate food that has been genetically modified, but that is not correct. While this may have been true in the past, it is no longer the case— and according to the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), the ‘8’-GMO code was never used at the retail level.

In 2015, the IFPS was in desperate need of additional PLU codes. Scrapping the ‘8’-GMO code (that, again, was never used at the retail level), would result in another 1,000 new codes, and so, the decision was made.

“Though the ‘8’ prefix was once reserved for GMO produce items, the prefix was never used at retail,” Ed Treacy, Chairman of the Board of the IFPS, explained.

“This is not a statement on the social or scientific acceptance of GMO items; it is simply that methods other than PLUs are being used to communicate regulatory and other information to consumers.”

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Beyer Beware Source: Beyer Beware

Why is this important?

Well, knowing how your food is grown and what kind of chemicals are used is important— especially if you’re committed to making healthy choices for your family.

Of course, not every conventionally grown produce item is loaded with chemicals and pesticides, which is also where the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen categorizations come in handy.

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Berkeley Wellness Institute Source: Berkeley Wellness Institute

The Dirty Dozen‘ is a list of fruits and vegetables which are more likely to be grown with toxic pesticides and more likely to retain toxic residues.

In order, they are:

    1. Strawberries (1/3 of samples have 10 pesticides or more)
    2. Spinach (97% of samples tested contained pesticide residues. In particular, permethrin, a neurotoxic insecticide)
    3. Nectarines (94% contained 2 or more pesticides)
    4. Apples (90% had pesticide residues, with 80% containing diphenylamine, a pesticide banned in Europe)
    5. Grapes (96% tested positive, on average contain 5 pesticide residues)
    6. Peaches (99% tested positive, on average contain 5 pesticide residues)
    7. Cherries (On average, contain 5 pesticides, 30% contained iprodione, a pesticide banned in Europe and linked to cancer)
    8. Pears (Several pesticides in high concentrations; more than half of the samples had 5+ residues)
    9. Tomatoes (On average contain 5 pesticides; one sample contained 15 different residues)
    10. Celery (95% tested positive, one sample contained 13 different residues).
    11. Potatoes (More residues by weight than any other crop)
    12. Sweet Bell Peppers (90% contain pesticide residues. These pesticides are fewer than the other items on the list, but tend to be more toxic to human health.

In research, pesticides have now been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, ADHD, and birth defects. Nature explains, “Not only are pesticides dangerous to the environment, but they are also hazardous to a person’s health.”

“Pesticides are stored in your colon where they slowly but surely poison the body… Even if you wash a piece of fruit, such as an apple, there are still many pesticides lingering on it and they could have seeped into the fruit or vegetable.”

They also note,”Although one piece of fruit with pesticides won’t kill you, if they build up in your body, they can be potentially detrimental to your health and should be avoided as much as possible.”

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Paul Grebuliunas/Huffington Post Source: Paul Grebuliunas/Huffington Post

The ‘Clean Fifteen‘, on the other hand, includes produce items that don’t need pesticides because they naturally resist pests or items on which pesticide residues do not remain.

In order, these are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, sweet frozen peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydew melons, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and broccoli.

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