Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? It’s a pretty straightforward question, but the answer isn’t so simple. To a botanist, a tomato is most certainly a fruit. A nutritionist or chef, however, might tell you that tomatoes are vegetables. And the US Supreme Court? Well, they have an opinion too.
So which is it? Here are some arguments for and against.
The Argument for Fruit
A botanist would tell you that any seed-bearing structure formed from a flower plant’s ovary is a fruit. By this definition, tomatoes are most certainly fruits. The juicy flesh of tomatoes protect and contain the seeds of their host plants. This also means that foods like squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants are also fruits.
Botanically speaking, vegetables are any edible part of a plant that doesn’t happen to be a fruit. This might be the leaves of plant, as is the case with spinach and lettuce, the roots, like carrots and beets, or the stems, like asparagus.
The Argument for Vegetable
Despite technically being fruits, some people still feel that tomatoes as vegetables just makes more sense. Tomatoes have a much lower sugar content than most other edible fruits. They are not as sweet, and as such, are usually found in more savory dishes. Tomatoes are common in salads or the main course of a meal, but you probably wouldn’t put chopped tomatoes on your ice cream or in your favorite dessert. This has led many in the US, including nutritionists and chefs, to consider tomatoes a ‘culinary vegetable’.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling?
While people can debate the whole vegetable vs. fruit thing, it’s worth noting that the US Supreme Court has ruled on this issue.
In 1886, a produce importer named John Nix brought a load of tomatoes to the Port of New York, where customs official Edward Hedden demanded payment of a 10% tax. An 1883 tariff had outlined an import duty on ‘foreign vegetables’. Nix, apparently knowing his botany, refused to pay, arguing that tomatoes, are in fact, fruits.
The dispute between the two men eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1893. Both sides made their cases, citing various dictionary definitions and bringing in experts on produce. Eventually, the court unanimously decided that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end.
As Justice Horace Gray said, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people…all these vegetables…are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.”
Despite the decision made by the Supreme Court, the debate on whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable continues. Tomatoes have been designated the state vegetable of New Jersey. But conversely, in 2009, the state of Ohio passed a law making the tomato the state’s official fruit. It’s clear that this argument won’t be going away anytime soon.
Are you #TeamFruit or #TeamVegetable? Let us know in the comments below.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.