Learn the Secret to Decoding Food Labels! The Body Ecology Shopping Guide

When it comes to food, does quality matter? Once many of us start taking a closer look at our health, diet, and lifestyle, we begin seeing options. For example, if we decide to invest time and energy into finding whole foods that are packed with nutrients, we want the best possible option available. But figuring out what codes and labels reallymean can be tricky business. In the world of advertising, sometimes things are not always what they seem.

To make shopping a little easier, we have put together a guide that will give you an idea of what to look for and what to watch out for.

Fruits & Vegetables

PLU Codes:

What does the label on your produce really mean? Only certified organic produce is grown without the use of chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge.

The price look-up code, otherwise known as the PLU code, is a way of identifying and selling loose or bulk items. (1) Usually, you can find the PLU code on the little stickers that cover produce in grocery market. Ever wonder if those little stickers mean anything? Here are 3 ways to understand the PLU codes on produce:

  • Conventional produce has a 4-digit PLU code that begins with the number 4.
  • Organic produce has a 5-digit PLU code that begins with the number 9.
  • Genetically modified (GMO) produce has a 5-digit PLU code that begins with the number 8.

The scoop on Genetically Modified (GMO) foods and labeling:There is a move now to fully discontinue the 5-digit PLU code for GMO produce due to customers not wanting to buy GMO products. Due to media coverage, most people know that, if given a choice, it is best to avoid GMO foods. In fact, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) tells us that, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including:

  • Infertility
  • Immune problems
  • Faulty insulin regulation
  • Changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system (2)

The only foods that you can be certain are not GMO are those that are labeled “Certified Organic.” Certified Organic:These farms and processors are inspected yearly by USDA-approved independent certifiers. Certified organic means the food cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge and cannot contain genetically modified organisms or be irradiated. (3)

  • “100% Organic” means that 100% of the ingredients must be organic.
  • “Organic” means that the product must have at least 95% organic ingredients.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that the product must have at least 70% organic ingredients.


Chickens are carnivorous. This means that they thrive on a bug-based diet. Raising chickens on pasture not only means that they have a chance to spend some time in the sunshine, but that they also have a chance to scratch for insects. 100% Vegetarian Diet or Vegetarian Feed Only:

This label is not certified. This means that there are no guarantees that an animal was raised on pasture.

When it comes to feeding chickens, corn is the equivalent of candy. If given the option, a chicken will go for the candy (corn). Nutrient-dense egg yolks come from hens that eat a bug-based diet or have had fishmeal incorporated into their feed without the addition of soy or corn. Cage Free or Free Range:This is also not a regulated label by the Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA. “Cage Free” does not necessarily mean that hens were raised with adequate space or that they had access to the outdoors. The label “Free Range” is only regulated for poultry, not for beef or eggs.


For meat to fall under the label of “Organic,” the animals must be fed only with organically grown feed without animal byproducts and should be free of hormones and antibiotics. Animals must also have access to the outdoors, although they don’t necessarily need to actually spend time outdoors.

Note: “Access to outdoors” could mean a concrete lot with a fence around it.

Raised Without Antibiotics or No Antibiotics Administered: The USDA has defined “No Antibiotics Administered” to mean that an animal was raised without low-level or therapeutic doses of antibiotics. However, unless certified by an organization, this term is largely unregulated and unreliable. Grass-Fed:A label that claims 100% grass-fed may or may not be reliable. Look for the “USDA Process Verified” shield. If you find it, this claim is legit. Otherwise, the animal may be grass-fed and grain-finished or fed grain at some point during the animal’s growth. Keep in mind that, according to the USDA, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.

When in doubt, choose local, seasonal, and organic!

When shopping for food, choose seasonal, local, and organic items as much as possible. If you frequent farmer’s markets, strike up a conversation with the person behind the table. The best way to ensure quality is to know your farmer.This rule applies to fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, and meat. Shopping locally supports your community. Buying in season and organic supports your health. These factors affect food quality and nutrient value – not to mention toxicity levels:

  • What is an animal is fed.
  • Soil quality.
  • How many miles a product needs to travel to reach you, i.e. storage time.
  • Whether or not pesticides are used.
  • The use of genetically modified seed.
  • The use of hormones or antibiotics.

When you know your famer, you also get a pretty good idea as to how the animal was treated during its lifecycle. Support farmers with high standards of non-GMO and humane treatment of animals – sunshine, grass, fresh water, and freedom to roam.

What to Remember Most About This Article:

If food labels at the supermarket don’t make any sense to you, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to decipher food labels, but it is important to understand what you are eating to protect your health, diet, and lifestyle. Unfortunately, some food labels are not regulated and may not live up to their claims, so don’t be fooled by a product at face value. When in doubt, always shop local, seasonal, and organic. By shopping at farmer’s markets, you can choose fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, and meat that will support both your health and your community.


  1. Produce PLU User’s Guide. International Federation For Produce Standards. 2006. http://www.plucodes.com/docs/IFPS-plu_codes_users_guide.pdf. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  2. Genetically Modified Foods. American Academy Of Environmental Medicine. http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  3. National Organic Program. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
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