Depending on what survey you look at, anywhere from 70-96% of Americans want labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. In the absence of such labeling, how do you know if something has GE ingredients? Chances are if it contains soy, canola oil, corn or sugar beets, it has an extremely high likelihood of being GE. What about fresh produce? The only way to know for sure is to buy certified organic produce.

You know those pesky little stickers that come on every banana in the bunch? It may say Pink Lady or Dole, but it always has a numeric code on it. This series of numbers is called a PLU or Price Look-Up code and is a standardized numbering system to differentiate varieties of fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, herbs and nuts (those sold loose or bunched by weight or individually). One of the key reasons for PLUs is to help grocery store cashiers distinguish between a Gala and a Fuji apple.

The general PLU code is 4 digits. If the sticker has 4 digits, it is conventionally grown. This means it is likely raised with pesticides, herbicides, and may or may not be genetically modified. Stickers with 5 digits contain the standard code with either an “8″ or “9″ added to the front. PLU’s starting with “9″ are organically grown in accordance with the National Organic Standards. Certified organic produce is raised with minimal pesticides, herbicides, and WITHOUT any genetic modification. Please note that PLU code guidance is voluntary. Under these voluntary guidelines, PLU’s starting with “8″ are genetically engineered and likely raised with pesticides, herbicides and are grown from genetically modified seed. However, at this time, producers do not use the “8″ code to notate GMOs.

What to Look For:

Four-digit code
– Conventionally Grown (may also be GE)
Five -digit code starting with the number”9” – Certified Organic

For smaller produce items such as green beans and mushrooms, look for the PLU code on the main signage. On grapes, the PLU code will be on the bag. Lettuce, spinach, kale and other leafy greens will often have a band which will contain the PLU. When in doubt, ask the produce personnel.

At the Grocery Store:

Buy certified organic anytime you can afford to do so (5-digits, starts with “9″). Try your farmers market or co-op and stick with in-season produce which is generally cheaper. Next best? Buy locally grown, but not necessarily organic (ask your farmer). Fresh fruits and veggies are very important, so if organic is beyond what you can afford, go with conventionally raised produce and wash your veggies well.

Be Food Smart does not recommend consuming genetically modified (GMO) foods. The good news is currently, most fresh fruits and veggies are not GE. The main exceptions are soybeans, papaya and some types of squash.  There has been talk of introducing GMO sweet corn to the market, so we recommend going organic on corn too.  In the future, should food companies start to use the “8″ code to indicate GE produce, we will let you know.

Related post: GMO Papaya

Check out EWG’s Dirty Dozen List so you know which fruits and veggies are the worst pesticide offenders (they have a free iPhone app).

Produce Marketing Association
Images: Bludgeoner86 via flickr