Here’s how to read the PLU coding.
Codes are displayed as a four or five-digit number. When shopping, look at the first number in the code as it identifies how the produce was grown.
Conventionally Grown - A “3” or “4” as the first digit indicates that the produce was conventionally grown. Synthetically manufactured chemical pesticides and weed killers were used during crop production.
In their annual report, The Environmental Working Group advises, “Pesticides have been linked to cancer, hormone disruptions and abnormal brain and nervous system development.” Their report also stated, “Conventional farming with pesticides is the number one source of drinking water contamination in the US. It also harms wildlife and farm workers.”
Genetically Modified – An “8” first digit refers to genetically engineered produce, (also referred to as GMOs), indicating that man disrupted the natural process by manipulating the genes in the fruit or vegetable to achieve a desired outcome: larger size, brilliant color, or to make food crops more tolerant of pests. However, according to the EWG, we now have super-weeds highly tolerant to chemicals, thus prompting producers to increase the usage of chemical herbicides and pesticides in crop production.
The Environmental Working Group reports, however, that there are very few GMOs in the produce section, most are found in processed foods. Since the government doesn’t require GMOs to be labeled as such yet, it is unlikely to see an “8″ on fresh produce. To avoid genetically engineered crops shop for organically-grown foods or items bearing the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label.
Organic - A “9” first digit indicates that the produce was grown organically. Organic farmers must meet state requirements and standards established by the National Organic Program and qualify annually to retain organic certification. The organic label does not guarantee that the fruit or vegetable was grown without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.
To learn more about the standards established by the USDA National Organic Program.
The “Clean 15”
If organic produce isn’t readily available in your area, shop for fruits and vegetables that are typically grown using little or no pesticides. The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual report and listing of the “Clean 15.”
The current list of conventional produce with the least amount of pesticide residues includes: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onion, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
It is important to rinse all produce under running water before slicing or consuming to remove residue of pesticides and bacteria.
To make your own produce cleaning solution, mix 3 cups of filtered water and 1 cup of vinegar in a spray bottle and spritz on fresh produce. Or, pour the solution into a bowl and plunge produce into the solution. Give produce a final rinse under running water and dry before storing or consuming.
About the author: Deborah Tukua is the editor of Journey to Natural Living, a freelance writer for the Farmers' Almanac and other periodicals, and author of the recipe book, Naturally Sweet Blender Treats.