How To Understanding Organic vs. Conventional vs. GMO Gobbledygook At The Grocery Store

It can be so confusing trying to make sense of what means what when it comes to PLU stickers at the grocery store. And what does it mean if an item is labeled “non GMO” vs. “organic”? I’ll be answering these questions in detail in an upcoming online course we’ll be releasing on Black Friday (woot woot!) but for now thought I’d share this easy to reference guide for making a little bit more sense of the organic vs conventional vs. GMO free etc etc etc confusion!

Here’s some helpful points to follow!

  • If the sticker only has four digits and is in the 3000-4999 range, the item was conventionally grown.
  • Produce with the prefix 9 will have five digits (i.e., the 9 is tacked onto the beginning of the four-digit identifier) and means the item was grown organically.
  • If the item is inorganic, there is no way to tell if the item was genetically modified simply by looking at the PLU code.
  • If the PLU starts with anything other than the numbers listed above, the code is not part of the internationally standardized PLU coding system.

See this excellent infographic about PLU’s from PaleoHacks:


So which foods should I buy organic?

The Environmental Working Group is an American environmental organization specializing in research and advocacy. Each year they publish a list of the most popular produce items with the highest and lowest amount of pesticide residues. The top twelve are referred to as the Dirty Dozen, and the top fifteen with the least amount of pesticide residue are referred to as the Clean Fifteen.

The Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers

The Clean Fifteen

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn*
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet Peas Frozen
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplant
  12. Honeydew Melon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Cantaloupe
  15. Cauliflower

* A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from GE seed stock. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid GE produce.

From The Huffington Post:

“Those that run PLU-universe figured that someday some retailer might want to distinguish between a GMO and a non-GMO for price or inventory purposes. So they created a convention of 5 digits starting with an 8, just in case it catches on. But it hasn’t. No one uses that number 8 as far as we can tell. And why would they? Most Americans say they would avoid GMOs if they were labeled.

Some seed companies don’t even want gardeners to know which seed is genetically modified. One company that sells zucchini seeds outfitted with virus genes announced that they would refuse to sell seed packets in Vermont, since the state legislature requires GM seeds to be labeled.”

The kinds of GMO produce in the U.S. are quite limited: Hawaiian papayas, some zucchini and yellow squash, and corn on the cob. If you don’t buy these organic, they *may* be genetically-modified (or they may not be). If that uncertainty bothers you, stick to the organic label.

The Big Eight (GMO Crops to Look Out For!)

The United States is the world leader in the production of biotechnology crops accounting for nearly two-thirds of all biotech crops planted globally. Approximately 70 percent of foods in our supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients including products made from these most common genetically modified foods.

  • Soy: soy flour, lecithin, soy protein isolates and concentrates (protein shakes). Products that may contain GMO soy derivatives: vitamin E supplements, tofu, cereals, veggie burgers, soy sausages, tamari, soy sauce, chips, ice cream, frozen yogurt, infant formula, sauces, protein powder, margarine, soy cheese, crackers, breads, cookies, chocolates, candy, fried foods, shampoo, bubble bath, cosmetics, enriched flours and pastas.
  • Corn: corn flour, corn starch, corn oil, corn sweeteners, syrups. Products that may contain GMO corn derivatives: vitamin C supplements, corn chips, candy, ice cream, infant formula, salad dressings, tomato sauces, bread, cookies, cereals, baking powder, alcohol, vanilla, margarine, soy sauce, soda, fried foods, powdered sugar, enriched flours and pastas.
  • Cotton: oil, fabrics. Products that may contain GMO cotton derivatives: clothes, linens, chips, peanut butter, crackers, cookies.
  • Canola:oil. Products that may contain GMO canola: processed foods, chips, crackers, cereal, snack bars, frozen foods, canned soups, candy, bread, hummus, oil blends.
  • Sugar Beets: sugar. Products that may contain GMO sugar beets: any product that doesn’t specify “cane sugar” but just “sugar” on ingredients, cookies, cakes, ice cream, donuts, baking mixes, candy,  juice, yogurt.
  • Alfalfa: fed to livestock. Products that may contain GMO alfalfa: all types of conventionally raised meat, pork, poultry, eggs and dairy.
  • Aspartame: artificial sweetener. Products that may contain aspartame: diet soft drinks, diet foods, yogurts.
  • Dairy: rBGH growth hormone. Products that may contain GMO rBGH include all conventionally raised dairy products: milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream, whey.

Here is an excellent infographic from FoodBabe explaining the difference between organic and non GMO!

See these excellent websites above for more information about conventional vs. organic and GMO’s 🙂

For your extraordinary health!

Catherine Slezinger

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