fruit or vegetable

You’ve probably had someone gleefully tell you that a tomato was a fruit. I used to be one of those gleeful people. But then I began thinking about how to distinguish between fruits and vegetables. If a tomato is a vegetable, what about a cucumber?

I’ve heard several theories. Some say whatever comes from a flower is a fruit. Others say when you eat the plant itself and not the regenerative part it’s a vegetable. Others say that a vegetable is a root, stem or leaf, and that just about everything else is a fruit.

I did some research and found a mixed bag of nuts. (Hah!)

There was a discussion on the garden web forums, but they just went back and forth, so no definitive conclusion was reached.

The straight dope’s stated the following.

A fruit is the matured ovary of a flower, containing the seed. After fertilization takes place and the embryo (plantlet) has begun to develop, the surrounding ovule becomes the fruit. Yum. I won’t go on about the four types of fruit–simple, aggregate, multiple and accessory–which explain things like berries and pineapples.

A vegetable is considered to be edible roots, tubers, stems, leaves, fruits, seeds, flower clusters, and other softer plant parts. In common usage, however, there is no exact distinction between a vegetable and a fruit. The usual example is the tomato, which is a fruit, but is eaten as a vegetable, as are cucumbers, peppers, melons, and squashes. The classification of plants as vegetables is largely determined by custom, culture, and usage.

I was surprised to find a controversy section on the Wikipedia entry for tomato, where they explain:

Botanically speaking a tomato is the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. This would mean that technically it would be considered a fruit. However, speaking from a culinary perspective the tomato is typically served as or part of a main course of a meal meaning that it would be considered a vegetable. This argument has lead to actual legal implications in the United States. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws which imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits caused the tomato’s status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled this controversy in 1893, declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, along with cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas, using the popular definition which classifies vegetables in how they are used: they are generally served with dinner and not dessert. The case is known as Nix v. Hedden

In concordance with this classification, the tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey.

Even the list of vegetables has a disclaimer stating, “Note that some herbs and vegetables which are botanically fruits are considered to be vegetables in the culinary sense.”

In the end, my conclusion is, it can be whatever you want it to be. Take your pick.


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  1. My husband and I often discuss the theory over fruit versus vegetable. I looked up the definition in a dictionary, and found no help at all. I decided to do an internet search and found your site. I really enjoyed reading your research on the subject.
    I then reviewed a couple of your other blogs….good stuff.
    Thanks for helping us with what has been an ongoing debate.
    Whitney from Dallas/Fort Worth

    Comment by whitney on December 23, 2005 @ 7:26 am
  2. Whitney: Glad to hear the research was of use. Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by dan on December 23, 2005 @ 10:00 pm
  3. One theory I have heard that seems logical to me is that fruits continue to ripen off the tree/vine/etc while vegetables proceed to rot.

    Comment by jim on June 5, 2006 @ 9:15 am
  4. Great site and very useful information. I just need it in plainer language so that I can explain it to a seven year old who still doesnt understand why the tomato is a fruit.

    Comment by Michelle on July 5, 2006 @ 1:01 am
  5. is a cucumber a fruit or vegitable

    Comment by joey on November 26, 2007 @ 5:14 pm
  6. Joey: It’s a fruit.

    Comment by dan on November 26, 2007 @ 8:39 pm
  7. if it has seeds it is a fruit – squash, tomato, cucumber, pumpkin, avocado, capsicum- they are all fruit!

    Comment by machoman69er on July 24, 2008 @ 6:08 am
  8. How about green, red, yellow bell peppers? For that mater all Peppers?

    Comment by Harris Schlesinger on January 20, 2009 @ 2:55 pm
  9. That question was posed on Yahoo Answers and the best response was, “Technically, the bell pepper is a fruit, since it contains the seeds of the plant, but in a cookery context it is usual to refer to it as a vegetable since it has a savoury taste.”

    Comment by Dan on January 20, 2009 @ 4:15 pm
  10. A tomato is a fruit!

    Comment by Hazel on December 24, 2009 @ 9:43 am
  11. I’m researching the same thing here. It’s actually a matter in court where a vendor was arrested because he had no license to sell vegetables as a “market” produce…but was allowed to sell fruits. A pumpkin is a fruit…

    Comment by Devica on March 1, 2010 @ 7:25 am

    Comment by rhonda on August 3, 2011 @ 3:21 pm
  13. Thanks!! Out of ALL the research I have done, this was definitely the best site

    Comment by KMuck on September 4, 2011 @ 6:07 pm
  14. In citing the Nix v. Hedden case on Wikipedia’s ‘Tomato’ page, you should also include the part of Wikipedia’s ‘Vegetable’ page ( wherein, referring to the same case, it continues to state that “The court did acknowledge, however, that, botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.” :-)

    Comment by Reparatio on December 15, 2011 @ 11:52 am
  15. @Reparatio You just did it for me – thanks ;)

    Comment by Dan on December 15, 2011 @ 2:43 pm
  16. Had a professor of botany in college explain it to me that a fruit has the seeds on the inside and a vegetable has the seeds on the outside. Sounded simple enough for me.

    Comment by blobber on September 15, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

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