Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Tomatoes on the vine

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The tomato. It seems like a vegetable. It feels like a vegetable. It tastes like a vegetable. As a base for chilis and stews, soups and sauces, it requires no explanation. Pureed and simmered with onions, garlic and herbs, and ladled over your favorite pasta, it makes perfect sense. Can you honestly say the same about apples or bananas?

No indeed.

And yet, as you probably know, (or have perhaps just discovered) tomatoes are technically fruits. 

Whether you knew this already or not, the fact that tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables, is a source of puzzlement. It's no life-altering revelation, to be sure. But it's strange. 

To try and make some sense of this conundrum, let's look at what makes a fruit a fruit.

What is a Fruit?

A fruit is any part of a plant by which that plant's seeds get out into the world. It's "the usually edible reproductive body of a seed plant," says Merriam-Webster. 

In other words, fruit is the part of the plant with seeds in it. If it contains seeds, it's a fruit. If you think of the first three fruits that pop into your head, you'll agree that they all have seeds.

And clearly, tomatoes have seeds, so they're fruit. 

But then the mind becomes uneasy. Anything with seeds is a fruit? Does that mean cucumbers are also fruit? Yes, they are. What about zucchini? Also fruit. Peppers? Fruit. Squash? Peas? Sweet corn? Fruit, fruit, fruit.

This is getting out of hand. What would be really helpful right now is a definition of what a vegetable is. 

What is a Vegetable?

It turns out that the definition of a vegetable is, any part of a plant that's edible, including the leaves, stems and roots. But what about the fruit? Is that part of the plant? That depends. Is an egg part of a chicken? Is it possible that all fruits are also vegetables? Surely not. But it certainly seems that the distinction between fruits and vegetables is not as clear-cut as we might like it to be.

But let's accept that a vegetable is any edible part of a plant, including the stems, leaves and roots, but not the part with seeds in it. Asparagus: Stems. Celery: Stalks. Potatoes and carrots: Roots. Lettuce: Leaves. Broccoli: Flowering buds and stems (but not seed-bearing fruit). 

And yet, science aside, this all feels unsatisfying. Because obviously tomatoes are vegetables. 

Reasons Tomatoes are Vegetables

  1. They're not sweet.
  2. They're used mostly in savory dishes.
  3. Hardly anyone just eats a whole tomato by itself.
  4. Hardly anyone puts tomatoes in fruit salad.
  5. Hardly anyone eats them for dessert; "tomato pie" is not a thing.
  6. They're not animal or mineral.
  7. The U.S. Supreme Court said so.

It's probably difficult to imagine that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling in utter defiance of science and reality.

Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened in 1893, when the court ruled, in Nix v. Hedden, that tomatoes were indeed subject to an import tariff on vegetables, rejecting the plaintiff's contention that since tomatoes were, botanically speaking, a fruit, they were immune from the tariff. According to Justice Horace Gray, who authored the opinion:

"Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. 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."

That's right, he actually said "repast."

You'd think this would've settled the question once and for all. And yet, in what may or may not be a simple case of good-natured trolling, Ohio and Tennessee both currently designate the tomato as their state fruits, whereas in New Jersey it's the state vegetable. Will this dispute never end?

Ultimately what we find is that, botany aside, our understanding of what constitutes a fruit and what constitutes a vegetable, both in the kitchen and in the courtroom, comes down to how that item is most commonly used. Still...

Reasons Tomatoes are Fruit

  1. They're literally fruit.