Deciphering Produce Labels and Codes

The produce department at the grocery store is the most shopped department.  Usually located at the front of the store, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables and eye-catching displays welcome shoppers to the store and the opportunity to explore nutritious options.  As shoppers peruse the aisles and refrigerated cases to make selections, one is sure to also find produce labels and stickers on the many selections. What do these stickers and labels tell us?

Various labels found on produce at the market
Eight different examples of food labels found on produce. Photos: mrgeiger

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries.  The laws require that labels on food be truthful and not misleading, but the laws don’t regulated definitions for all of the labels that one may see.  Here’s some help with deciphering what each label or sticker means.

FDA Regulated Labels

Country of Origin: Perishable produce must be labeled with the country where it was grown.

USDA Organic: This label indicates that the produce was produced on a certified farm that follows regulated organic procedures, such as non-use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and was processed without artificialingredients or chemical processing aids. Organic should not be confused with “natural.” Natural has little meaning for produce.

Nutrition Facts Label: If packaging makes a claim about nutrients, the Food and Drug Administration requires a nutrition label. So if the packaging is stamped with “good source of . . .,” it must have a Nutrition Facts Label.

Excellent Source Of/High In: A label bearing this claim must contain at least 20 percent of the daily requirement of that nutrient in a serving.  A Good Source Of label indicates that one serving has 10-19 percent of the daily dose of the named nutrient.c

Fresh: Fresh means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.  Fresh does not address when the produce was harvested or if the produce was washed in a mild chlorine solution prior to packaging or shipping.

Unregulated Claims

Washed/Triple-Washed/Ready to Eat: Most produce gets a rinse prior to marketing.  However, a washing claim may only mean that the produce has had dirt or grit removed; it is not a guarantee that it is bacteria-free.

Pesticide-Free: This label could mean one of two things:  1) no pesticides were used during growing; or 2) pesticide residue has been washed away. There’s no real way to know unless it bears an organic label.

Hydroponically Grown/Hydroponic: This label generally means that the produce was grown in a greenhouse using a nutrient solution instead of soil.

Non-GMO:  The only possible GMOs to be found in the produce aisles include potatoes, squash/pumpkins, papayas, sweet corn, and soy beans (edamame). If this label were to appear on a package of greens, for example, it would be a misnomer.

Gluten Free:  Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free.  This is a true claim but misleading in meaning.

No Preservatives/Free from Artificial Ingredients: Preservatives or artificial ingredients are not usually added to fresh produce making this label misleading on nearly all produce. 

Price Look-Up StickersPLUs

Besides the labels, there are also price look-up (PLU) stickers found on many fruits and vegetables. Sometimes labels and stickers are one in the same.  The PLU stickers on produce were designed for scanning and pricing at the checkout and to remove cashiers (or now self-checkout customers) of the responsibility to accurately identify the product and whether it is conventionally or organically grown. In a small way, the the PLUs may also help consumers with some information about the produce item. No matter where you shop, the produce code for any particular fruit or veggie will be the same as codes are assigned through the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). The codes identify a specific commodity (apple, squash, pepper, etc), variety (Red Delicious, Honey Crisp, Golden Delicious, etc), and size (small, med, large, etc). There are currently over 1400 PLU codes issued for fresh produce and produce related items used on unprocessed food around the world. These codes have been used since 1990 and are administered by the IFPS. However, it is an imperfect system with no governing oversite or regulating laws; it is voluntary on the part of the producer who can opt out of using the codes or adding other letters or numbers that refer to something specific to the item. 

In general, here’s what those stickers are supposed mean:

Four Digit Code:  Produce with a four digit code beginning with a 3 or 4 means the produce was probably conventionally grown with the possible use of pesticides.  For example, the code for conventionally grown yellow bananas is 4011.

Five Digit Code beginning with “9”: Fruits and vegetables grown organically have a five digit code starting with a “9”.  An organically grown yellow banana’s PLU would be 94011, for example. While there may be other five digit codes found on produce, the only five digit code that is of particular significance to consumers are those that start with a “9”.

Six Digit Codes. It is not uncommon to find produce with six digit codes which may relate to the color, specific size, consumer delivery, or anything else specific to the item for the purpose of pricing at checkout. For example, the National Watermelon Association has a rather extensive list of codes that refer to watermelon variety, color, and presentation or delivery at the store. One may also find a variety of codes on avocadoes and other fruits and vegetables all of which point to pricing at the checkout.

Five Digit Code beginning with “8”:  Anything beginning with “8” is not likely to be found in the produce aisle. “8” was originally set aside for genetically modified organisms (GMO) produce (produce with genes from other organisms) but has not been used. Therefore, PLU codes will not tell consumers if a produce item is GMO. However, it is important to note, there are few GMO fresh items likely to be found in the produce aisles at this time; approval has only been made for potatoes, papaya, summer squash, and apples, all of which are not widely grown in the US.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the labels on your produce!  Understanding what the labels and codes mean will help you choose what is right for you.

How to Decipher PLU Codes on Fresh Produce. LivingWell.
GMO Crops, Animal Food and Beyond. FDA.
Stickers on Produce. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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