You’ve probably done this. You’re happily munching on a Honeycrisp or Cosmic Crisp apple when you look down at it and realize that you’ve eaten half of the sticker. A momentary sense of panic kicks in, and you wonder if you’ve basically poisoned yourself. It’s happened to me plenty of times. Clearly I’m a details person. Then there’s the cursing, and the scramble to remove the rest of the sticker. But when it comes down to it, is eating the produce sticker bad for you?
The New York Times recently investigated this question, and don’t worry: If you’ve ingested the sticker, you can relax, you’ll be just fine. The stickers, called PLU stickers (which stands for “Price Look Up”), are what cashiers use to check the price-to-weight is of an item. That sticker is key, because around half of the fresh produce in grocery stores doesn’t come delivered in packaging. It’s basically the only bit of info that describes what kind of produce you’re buying, and the manner in which it was grown, like whether or not it was done so conventionally or organically.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration told the New York Times:
Because produce stickers have contact with food, the intended use of these stickers is the subject of premarket approval by the Food and Drug Administration, to ensure that any substances that may migrate to food from the use of the sticker is safe.
As these stickers are intended to be removed before consumption of produce, the F.D.A.’s review does not include the exposure that would result from regular consumption of these labels. However, as these substances are of low toxicity, any exposure from the occasional, unintentional consumption of a sticker would not be expected to be a health concern.
So according to the FDA, eating a sticker now and then won’t hurt you. It probably won’t do you any favors, but hey, you’ll be fine. But now that we’re on the topic, what exactly are the stickers made out of?
The stickers are made of plastic, plastic composite, or paper, plus the ink and adhesive. Ed Treacy is the vice president of supply chain and sustainability for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). The PMA is the group that originally invented the sticker system used to track produce. “All three of those [sticker components] have to be safe for humans,” he said.
It’s not that you should be chewing on those things with reckless abandon, but you’re more or less fine if you munch on one. One thing to note is that the stickers aren’t compostable, so if you turn your scraps into gardening gold, unfortunately the stickers won’t decay.
Treacy said that the industry is trying to find a way to make biodegradable stickers. “That is a challenge that our industry is spending a lot of time, effort and money trying to solve,” he said. “The challenge is the adhesive.”
The moral of the story is, you should just get rid of those produce stickers before you eat your fruit or vegetables, but don’t freak out if you’ve eaten one by accident. Also, toss the stickers in the trash before the peels and skins and cores go in your compost bin. Okay, got it. Wait, did I just bite into another one?