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What’s The Deal With Those Stickers On Fruits And Veggies?

When you add scrap collection to your food and cooking routine, you will quickly find yourself confronted with peculiar, sticky little things: the stickers that come with store-bought produce. While diligently peeling them off before discarding my scraps, I have to come to wonder about them. Where do they come from? What do they tell us? And do I really need to peel them off or has some savvy committee decided to outfit our avocados and apples with compostable labels?

To answer the question most pressing to our cause: Yes, do peel them of. Produce stickers are not compostable. Even though their glue is considered food-grade, the label itself is not.

The stickers usually have a barcode for scanning, as well as the country of origin.  If, like me, you enjoy the self-checkout at the grocery store and routinely buy certain types of fruit, chances are you might have the international code for, say, bananas memorized: 4011. This code number is called the PLU, or Price Look-Up number. These codes have been used by supermarkets since 1990 to make check-out and inventory control easier, faster and more accurate. Oh, and when I say international code, I do mean international. They are administered by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) and are the same no matter where you go in the world.  But not only does the PLU identify a product, it also gives consumers information on how a product was grown.

Conventionally grown produce has a four digit number. Let’s stick with the bananas: a simple 4011. Conventionally means, among other things, that pesticides and chemical fertilizers were used in the production.

But there are also five digit numbers, either starting with a 8 or an 9.

If there are five numbers and the first one is an 8, you’re dealing with a genetically modified (GMO) food. The PLU 84011 would then signify a genetically modified banana.

If the PLU has five digits and starts with a nine, for example 94011, your purchase is an organic product.

So, why does this matter? For some fruits and veggies, the way it is grown matters more than for others as far as pesticide residues goes. For this reason, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list known as the “Dirty Dozen” that features the twelve types of produce with the highest pesticide load. I highly recommend clicking through their Frequently Asked Questions About Produce And Pesticides for more information - whether this means you should avoid these foods altogether (you shouldn’t) or what “organic” even means. Let’s just say, if you wanted to stay clear of conventionally grown members of the Dirty Dozen in order to reduce your pesticide exposure, just look for the little 9 on your sticker.

Karl Schrass