Tomatoes: Wait, Are They a Vegetable or a Fruit?

Tomatoes. We love them fresh, cooked, grilled, baked, fried, pickled, mashed, spreadable, or crushed.

Tomatoes serve us in many types of food preparation. From an agricultural perspective, they are one of the most cross-cultural products in the world and almost every nationality uses them in their traditional culinary recipes. We have such a basic and automatic need for tomatoes that it seems that we’ve never bothered to stop and clarify: Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable?

At first the answer seems quite clear: Tomatoes are a vegetable since they are found in the vegetable department of the supermarket. But are they really vegetables? The answer to this question may be clear from a biological perspective, but it isn’t known to the general population.  Even the legal world has had to prove this matter.

What Do the Scientists Say?

The difference between a vegetable and a fruit, known to anyone who works in the field of botany, is the structure of the plant. A fruit is defined as an edible part of a plant that contains seeds, and a vegetable is defined as any type of green plant. Fruits develop from ovaries found in the base of the flower which contain the seeds of the plant (even though cultivated forms are sometimes made to be without seeds). This scientific definition leaves no doubt that a tomato is a fruit.

The tomato is thought of as a true fruit because it is developed from a single ovary, in contrast to fruits which are “false fruits” or pseudocarps, such as the strawberry, fig and apple. In these cases, the ovary doesn’t develop at all or is developed in other parts of the flower such as the stalk or the receptacle.

What Do the Food Connoisseurs Say?

Even though the scientists say that the tomato is a fruit, chefs and culinary experts prefer to call the tomato a vegetable. This is due to its use in cooking, which is different from the normative use of a fruit and has a similarity to other vegetables in the kitchen. Therefore, the fact that the tomato is acceptable as a first course and isn’t suitable as a desert causes many food connoisseurs to identify it as a fruit. According to this opinion, what actually makes the tomato a vegetable is its taste – which isn’t sweet.

What Do the Legal Experts Say?

Believe it or not, in 1893 the case of the classification of the tomato went to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case “Nix vs. Hedden.” This strange ruling occurred due to a claim brought against the tax authority of the Port of New York for import taxes on tomato imports. According to the taxes of 1883, import taxes were imposed on “vegetables in a natural form, whether salted or in saltwater.” According to this definition, green fruit, whether cooked or dried, were not included in this ruling.

The Supreme Court needed to rule whether or not the definition applied to tomatoes. In the legal case proceedings, many definitions from Webster’s Dictionary were read and testimony was received from different trade and commerce experts in an attempt to understand how tomatoes should be classified. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defense, deciding that the tomato is a vegetable based on the manner in which it is used as well as its perception in the general population as a vegetable and not as a fruit.

So the next time you’re wondering about how to classify tomatoes, remember: Although the legal community declared tomatoes a vegetable and they share this opinion with many food connoisseurs, botanists have unequivocally decided that biologically, tomatoes are a fruit.

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