Tomato, Tomato… Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off
By Camille Rhoades
We have all heard the great debate over fruit or vegetable? I think the tomato is the undisputed celebrity of this, but there are a few more players in this silly little game. These players include pumpkin, cucumber, squash, green bell peppers, and others. This dilemma has boggled the minds of humans for decades. To get to the bottom of this quandary let’s look at the definitions of the words “fruit” and “vegetable” and see what we can learn.
According to Wikipedia.org, “The term fruit has different meanings depending on context. In botany, a fruit is the ripened ovary—together with seeds—of a flowering plant. In many species, the fruit incorporates the ripened ovary and surrounding tissues. Fruits are the means by which flowering plants disseminate seeds. In cuisine, when discussing fruit as food, the term usually refers to just those plant fruits that are sweet and fleshy, examples of which include plum, apple and orange. However, a great many common vegetables, as well as nuts and grains, are the fruit of the plant species they come from. No one terminology really fits the enormous variety that is found among plant fruits. Botanical terminology for fruits is inexact and will remain so.”
Clear as mud right? I know, we haven’t solved any great debates just yet, but let’s see what Science Bob has to say about this question: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?
Answer: “To really figure out if a tomato is a fruit or vegetable, you need to know what makes a fruit a fruit, and a vegetable a vegetable. The big question to ask is, DOES IT HAVE SEEDS?
If the answer is yes, then technically, you have a FRUIT. This, of course, makes your tomato a fruit. It also makes cucumbers, squash, green beans and walnuts all fruits as well. VEGETABLES such as, radishes, celery, carrots, and lettuce do NOT have seeds (that are part of what we eat) and so they are grouped as vegetables.”
By this definition, botanically speaking, all of these foods would technically fall in the fruit category:
So, let’s look at the definition of a vegetable and see if it makes anything more clear.
“Vegetable is a culinary term. Its definition has no scientific value and is somewhat arbitrary and subjective. All parts of herbaceous plants eaten as food by humans, whole or in part, are generally considered vegetables. Mushrooms, though belonging to the biological kingdom, fungi, are also commonly considered vegetables…Since ‘vegetable’ is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable. Given this general rule of thumb, vegetables can include leaves (lettuce), stems (asparagus), roots (carrots), flowers (broccoli), bulbs (garlic), seeds (peas and beans) and of course the botanical fruits like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and capsicums.” (Wikipedia.org)
The what is the verdict? If you are speaking scientifically, or botanically, then these are all technically fruits, because they have seeds. If you are speaking in a culinary context then they can properly be called vegetables.
I know, I know, that wasn’t a real clear verdict. I imagine the great debate will continue, but you may find it interesting to know that in 1883 the US Supreme Court actually weighed in on the issue. They decided unanimously, in Nix versus Hedden, 1883, that a tomato is a vegetable, even though it is a botanical fruit.
So, there you have it…they are both correct! Depending on the context a tomato (and a pumpkin, and a squash, etc) is both a fruit and a vegetable!
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