Tomato - Fruit or Vegetable?

Have you wondered if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable?

On the one hand, it seems intuitive that the tomato is a vegetable, because it isn't sweet like strawberries and bananas. On the other hand, if we use the botanical definition it is a fruit. According to the Encarta Dictionary, a fruit is "the ripened seed-bearing ovary of a plant. It is usually considered to be sweet and fleshy, as in plums, but may be dry, as in poppies, or be a simple edible supporting structure, as in strawberries."

The U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on the question

The U.S. Congress passed the Tariff Act of 1883 which levied a ten percent duty on imported vegetables to protect American growers from foreign competition. An importer, John Nix, maintained that tomatoes were a fruit and should be exempted from the tariff. He brought suit against the duty collector, a Mr. Hedden. After six years of winding through the lower courts, the Supreme Court heard the case in Nix vs. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304.

In the 1893 decision, Justice Horace Gray concluded, "Botanically speaking tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, 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." The Supreme Court thus sided with the tariff collector and decided the tomato is a vegetable.

What do scientists say?

It is said that fruits are so diverse that it's not easy to devise a classification scheme that includes all known fruits, which is the reason it is difficult to arrive at a precise meaning of the terminology. Scientists' use of the term fruit is quite different from the culinary usage of the term. In a botanical sense, though, scientists would agree that a tomato is technically a fruit.

Informal vs. Botanical View

The diagram below graphically shows the overlap between fruits and vegetables from the two viewpoints.

Tomato Fruit or Vegetable Diagram

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Botanically speaking, it's a fruit. But there is a Supreme Court ruling declaring the tomato a vegetable. Now you have enough facts to argue either case!


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