Can you identify organic vs conventional produce with PLU codes? Once upon a time, the answer was yes! Today, however, it’s not quite as simple as just looking for a specific number at the start of the code. Don’t worry, though; I’ll share some updated ways to find and identify organic produce in your supermarket!
How to Identify Organic vs. Conventional Produce
When I started making better food choices, I also learned how to read labels. I think it is so important to know what you are eating and where it comes from.
I try to buy organic food as much as possible. If you’re searching for ways to identify organic produce, I’m betting you already know why it’s better for you, so I won’t get into all the benefits of organic food right now. If you are interested in knowing more about the topic, please see my post: Powerful Reasons Why You Should Buy Organic Food.
Several years back, I discovered a neat trick to learn whether produce was organic, conventional, or GMO by using the PLU code. These numbers are assigned by The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), after rigorous review at both national and international levels.
What are PLU Codes?
They are 4 or 5-digit numbers that you can find on a small sticker applied to the individual piece of fresh produce. Here’s the neat thing- the length of the number alone gives you a major clue about whether it’s organic or not. Read on to learn how.
Identify Organic vs Conventional Produce With PLU Codes & Labels
Before we learn how to identify organic vs. conventional vs. GMO produce by using the label, it’s important to understand that the “rules” are constantly changing. Today, GMO produce doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Hopefully, that could change in the future. All of this information is accurate as of now.
Organic Produce has 5 digits
A 5-digit code that starts with the number “9” means the produce is organic. This also means you are staying away from GMOs since all organic produce grows naturally without the use of chemicals. Also, since organic produce stickers are currently the ONLY produce with 5 digits, even just seeing that extra number clues you in. Technically, you don’t even have to look for the number 9!
Conventional Produce has 4 digits
A 4-digit code that starts with the number “4” means the produce is conventional (potentially grown with the use of chemicals and pesticides). Could it be organic? Theoretically, yes. Not all farmers use chemicals, pesticides, or GMO. However, it’s a safe bet to assume that farmers who go through the trouble of growing organic produce would want to make sure everyone actually knew it was organic.
Organic foods are typically labeled as such
Since PLU codes aren’t always completely reliable, your best bet is to look for the “USDA Organic” seal, either directly on the produce or on the store label in front of it. This means the produce underwent a screening process and met all of the requirements to call itself organic. What are those requirements?
- Overall, the produce and livestock must be produced in ways that “resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.”
- Products must be overseen by an authorized USDA certifying agent.
- They must be free of a long list of excluded or prohibited methods (including genetic modifications) AND made only with allowed substances.
It’s important to note that ONLY the word “organic” is regulated. Just about anyone can call their product “natural,” so that word has no meaning when it comes to identifying organic vs. conventional produce.
Another important note: sometimes the USDA makes exceptions to their organic rules. As they state, “Temporary variances from the production and handling requirements of the USDA organic regulations may be granted by the Administrator for natural disasters declared by the Secretary, damage caused by severe weather, or other business interruption, or for the purpose of conducting research in organic production or handling.”
Most of the exceptions apply to organic livestock rather than produce. Still, it’s a good idea to bookmark USDA Organic’s current list of exceptions so you can make fully educated choices about what you buy for your family.
GMO produce is not easily identifiable
Did you know that the IFPS set up a special digit to identify GMO? If the number 8 appeared at the start of the PLU code, that meant it was genetically modified. Unfortunately, using the digit wasn’t a requirement. So, of course, no one did. After all, why would a retailer want to tell you that all of their tomatoes are GMO if they don’t have to?
Just a few years ago, GMO produce was still relatively limited. However, more and more crops show up on the list every year. Let’s look at a quick rundown of the most common:
- Corn– nearly ALL corn grown in the US is genetically modified. According to the FDA, a good chunk of it ends up in processed foods or to feeding livestock.
- Soybeans– again, almost all of the soybean crops in the US are GMO.
- Papaya– especially the Rainbow Papaya from Hawaii
- Squash– some summer squash is genetically modified, but the FDA states that it’s not “widely grown.”
- Sugar Beets- mostly used to make granulated sugar.
- Alfalfa– most GMO alfalfa is primarily used to feed dairy cows.
- Pink Pineapples
New types of potatoes and apples are also GMO, as is Aquabounty salmon. That last one isn’t a type of produce, I know, but I mention it just in case you buy a lot of salmon. Also, according to the FDA, “More than 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops.” That’s insane!
Sadly, like I said, we do not know what other GMO produce will show up at the supermarket in the future. Hopefully, the PLU code for GMOs will be required in the future. Until then, remember that the only sure way you can avoid GMOs is by choosing organic produce.
Which foods should I focus on if I can only afford some organic produce?
Organic produce is more expensive than conventional, there’s no denying that. It’s sad, really, because it shouldn’t cost more to eat non-toxic food. While it’s definitely worth spending the extra money to make sure you’re getting food that’s not laced with chemicals, some people simply can’t afford it.
Here’s a list of produce with the highest pesticide residues so you can avoid them if you cannot buy everything organic.
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Grapes (Imported)
Where can I find the most organic produce?
Before we say goodbye for today, I just want to share a quick list of stores that have the most organic produce. They include:
- Costco (it’s a membership-only store, though)
- Whole Foods
- Trader Joe’s
Walmart & Target also both have a decent selection of organic produce. You just have to look carefully for the signs, though, because they also have a lot of conventionally grown stuff as well. You can also use the Natural Grocer’s product finder to locate specific fruits and veggies near you.
Knowing how to identify organic vs. conventional produce with PLU codes and Labels is a fantastic trick if you want to stay away from chemicals or pesticides and learn more about your produce. Just remember that you can’t really use a 4-digit code to determine if something is GMO. For that, you have to either rely on the “USDA Organic” sticker or the 5-digit code.
Stay healthy and eat lots of fruits and veggies!