What the Sticker on Your Fruit Can Tell You

By | June 21, 2024

There are many benefits to be derived from growing your own food. It reduces stress, is a productive activity, and it is rewarding to enjoy fresh produce grown by your own hand. During the lockdowns of COVID-19, there was an uptick in gardening.1 The spirit behind this movement was not unlike the “victory gardens” which the U.S. government promoted as canned vegetables were rationed during World War 2.2

Supply chain issues and then rampant inflation has also made cultivating your own food a worthy financial investment. There are many positive and proactive reasons to grow your own food. It is a practice that reduces pesticide and fertilizer use as well. Produce grown in nutrient and microbe rich soil is delicious and also more nutritious. It is a wonderful opportunity to interact with nature while getting exercise.3

But there are other factors at work beyond societal unease and expense. The risks posed by processed and packaged foods are difficult to evaluate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes very little effort regulate synthetic ingredients and chemicals.

They have statutory authority but have relied on manufacturer assurances rather than safety testing for most approvals since 1970.4 Approximately 3,000 of the 10,000 additives in our food supply have never been reviewed by the FDA.5

Growing Your Own Food Is Ideal but Not Always Possible

Once you have taken the important step of avoiding processed and prepackaged foods, it is not much of a leap to homestead and grow delightful heirloom plants for you or your family. Sprouts are a versatile emergency food that require little room to grow. If you live in a sub-tropical or tropical environment, you can potentially grow a wider range of plants throughout the year.

Unfortunately, not everyone has sufficient space for an orchard or to generate yields large enough to can and save for 12 months of food. This is the situation confronting many Americans and for this reason trips to the grocery store or produce stand are inevitable, where understanding the quality and origin of the produce becomes paramount.

The small stickers on fruits and vegetables — bearing PLU codes — offer helpful guidance, as these codes will tell you whether the food was grown with conventional methods or organic ones.

Why PLU Codes Were Needed

The Product Look-up code system was devised in 1990 as a fast method of looking up produce.6 Devised to assist both logistics and the point-of-sale transaction, it has become an increasingly useful tool for distinguishing between similar looking items. An organic Fuji apple may cost twice as much as a conventionally grown one yet the difference between them may be undiscernible to the naked eye.7

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Starting in 2001, the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) took control of and began to administer the system. Their purpose was to harmonize international standards, and this became increasingly important as the first genetically modified fruit, tomatoes, were approved and available for sale in 1994.8

Reading PLU Codes: 8 Does Not Mean No GMO

Grocery stores have been fairly careful to set apart organic produce but the PLU sticker still contains important information. Over 1,500 PLU codes have been assigned to fresh produce and produce related items. Each PLU code contains a four- or five-digit number:9

  • Four-digit numbers — Four-digit numbers are for conventionally grown produce. Numbers are randomly assigned within the 3000 and 4000 range.
  • Five-digit number beginning with 8 — The number 8 followed by a four-digit code was originally set aside for GMO. Not surprisingly, the growers of these products were not eager to have shoppers easily avoid their products by looking for a five-digit number starting with 8. In fact, the PLU plans to use this range of numbers for the conventional produce once every number in the 3000 and 4000 range is exhausted.
  • Five-digit number beginning with 9 — 9 is the only recognized prefix in the PLU system and signifies that a product was organically grown. A four-digit product code follows. The GMO prefix was scrapped, allowing GMOs to masquerade as conventionally grown, leaving the number 9 as the only designation that signifies a product was not genetically engineered.

Avoid Pesticides and Toxins by Buying Organic

Buying organic is a tangible and easy to implement step that can protect your health. Anyone who has shopped for produce in the last decade has noticed how organic product selection has increased tremendously. Total organic sales reached a record $ 69.7 billion in 2023. This is nearly double what it was a decade ago, which is great news. Sales of organic produce now account for 15% of all fruit and vegetables sold in the U.S.10

There are many benefits to eating organic food. For starters, they have lower levels of toxic metabolites, heavy metals, and synthetic fertilizer and pesticide residues. As noted by Harvard School of Public Health:11

“In conventional food, there are pesticide residues that remain in the food even after it’s washed. Organic foods are produced virtually without pesticides.”

Many widely used pesticides have been banned retroactively only after the negative consequences were realized. Long-term studies show possible neurotoxicity and endocrine from the consumption of chemicals widely found in agricultural products.12

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Pesticides have been shown to have a particularly dramatic effect on childhood development. Chronic exposure to lower doses of organophosphate pesticides were associated with poorer intellectual development in 7-year-old children.13 Organic foods may also reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.14

The Preventative Use of Antibiotics Is Restricted on Organic Farms

Low doses of antibiotics are added to the feed in nonorganic concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). This is done to prevent outbreaks of disease and because the animals will grow faster with less food.15 The FDA attempted to address this abuse in 2017 by requiring veterinarians to oversee the addition of antibiotics to animal feed.16 However, stating the antibiotics are not being used for growth promotion is sufficient for compliance.

The overuse of antibiotics has set off an explosion of antibiotic-resistant infections. Each year an estimated 2.8 million Americans acquire drug-resistant infections, resulting in 35,000 deaths. Supporting organic farming helps to avert this issue by reducing the use of antibiotics in food production. Globally, 1.27 million people died from antibiotic-resistant infections in 2019.17

Heroic medical breakthroughs from the scientific cavalry will not be coming to rescue and resolving this issue. There are fewer than 50 new antibiotics being developed globally and no new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1984.18

To take responsibility for your own health and to protect those who truly need antibiotics, such as in the case of a surgery, do not support the CAFOs that have abused antibiotics for profit on an epic scale. Their methods have made factory farms a breeding ground for superbugs.19

The Health Benefits of Superior Nutrition

Avoiding pesticides contamination is reason enough to switch to organic foods. Studies have also shown they have superior nutritional value. Studies have shown organics have higher antioxidant concentrations and these compositional differences can impact the plasma level of certain nutrients such as magnesium and zeaxanthin in your bloodstream.20

“On average, organic food of plant origin is characterized by a trace presence of pesticides, a lower content of nitrates and an increased content of polyphenols and vitamin C.”21 Organic milk contains lower levels of omega-6 fats, along with vitamin E, beta carotene, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).22 Organic meats typically have a higher protein content.23

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A growing body of evidence have shown demonstrable benefits of organic food consumption,24 including to lower risk of obesity,25 metabolic syndrome, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, infertility, birth defects and allergic sensitivities.26 The good news is that studies have consistently shown a reduction in urinary pesticide metabolites within a week of switching to organic produce.27 This is an important measure or exposure.

Beware of Fake Organics

When you see the word “organic” on a label, it’s still essential to verify that the product genuinely meets the highest organic standards. The Organic Trade Association and the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents the hydroponic industry, are working to change organic regulations to encompass hydroponics — a method of growing plants in water-based solutions without soil.

USDA organic regulations require crop rotation plans to maintain or improve soil organic matter. Since hydroponics don’t use soil, they don’t qualify for organic certification. However, some USDA-accredited agencies have certified hydroponic operators as organic, misleading the public.

Hydroponics also use chemicals that organic producers can’t use. Nor are hydroponics growers required to reveal their fertilizers, and despite being grown indoors they are not necessarily pesticide free.

Exercise caution when purchasing organic dairy as well. There are reputable producers with grass fed herds raised in pastures. There are also industrial organic dairies that are bad actors and run veritable CAFOs while still receiving USDA organic certification.

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has introduced much needed standards to the organic dairy industry. I urge you to verify that your source of dairy is AGA certified. Better still is raw milk obtained from a local grass fed farm or co-op. Cornucopia’s Organic Scorecard can help you navigate this tricky market.

The Environmental Working Group also posts an annual list of the “Dirty Dozen.” The 2023 list includes some of the most popular produce items in the U.S., a cautionary reminder of why it is crucial to buy organic or grow your own food.

Strawberries

Spinach

Kale, collard and mustard greens

Peaches

Pears

Nectarines

Apples

Grapes

Bell and hot peppers

Cherries

Blueberries

Green beans

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