Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Why not both?

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Supermarkets place tomatoes in the vegetable aisles, but botanically speaking tomatoes are ripened flower ovaries and contain seeds, which technically makes them fruit.

This segues into the age-old question: are tomatoes fruit or vegetables? Here’s an answer you can try the next time this comes up with friends over drinks, which is sure to raise some eyebrows: they’re both!

What’s the difference between fruits and vegetables, anyway?

Fruits and vegetables have more things in common than differences. For instance, both are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Botanically speaking, all fruits have seeds and grow from the flower of a plant. For the purpose of simplification, vegetables are all other plant parts, such as roots, leaves, and stems.

By this classification, it’s rather clear that seedy outgrowths such as apples, squash, and, of course, tomatoes are all fruits. It also makes cucumbers, green beans, and pumpkins all fruits.

Meanwhile, roots such as beets, potatoes, and turnips, leaves such as spinach, kale, and lettuce, and stems such as celery and broccoli are all vegetables.

However, people don’t eat or cook with a botanical atlas in hand. They might use a recipe book, though, where ingredients are mixed based on their culinary characteristics, such as texture, flavor, and taste.

So, if you ask a restaurant chef, rather than a botanist, what constitutes a fruit, he will come up with a totally different classification. He would tell you that fruits must have a soft texture and are generally sweet, while vegetables are blander, sometimes bitter, and have a tougher texture.

Fruits are considered deserts, whereas vegetables are suited for savory dishes like stews, salads, and stir-fries.

Tomato: both fruit and vegetables

So, scientifically speaking tomatoes are fruit, while in the kitchen most sensible people use them as vegetables.

Which weighs more, though? I guess if you want to be a wise guy, you can go ahead and insist that tomatoes are vegetables. In everyday language, however, people prefer to refer to things by their common usage.

The USDA, for instance, agrees that tomatoes are vegetables in its official listing. Legally speaking, the US Supreme Court also classed tomatoes as vegetables in 1893 when it ruled that imported tomatoes should be taxed under the Tariff Act of 1883, which does not apply to fruit.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas,” Justice Horace Grey wrote in the court’s opinion at the end of the 19th century.

“But in the common language of the people … all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

Are you confused?

You came reading this article in hopes of settling this debate once for all. I’m sorry if you’re still confused. At least you’re not alone — the tomato is the official “vegetable” of New Jersey and the official “fruit” of Arkansas. Talk about a disagreement.

Bottom line: according to science tomatoes are fruits because they form a flower and contain seeds. Common culinary sense says that tomatoes are vegetables, though. For all intents and purposes, one can say the tomato is both a fruit and vegetable.

I think this line by Miles Kington from a century ago sums up this debate nicely:

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

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