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Is the Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

I've yet again run across the claim that it's an error to call a tomato a "vegetable," because it's really a fruit. I'd blogged about this three and a half years ago, but I thought I'd rerun the post to get reader comments (which weren't enabled when I originally posted this).

The tomato, it seems to me, is both a fruit and a vegetable. It is indeed, botanically speaking, a fruit, a term that's technically defined as "The ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant, together with accessory parts, containing the seeds and occurring in a wide variety of forms." But it's also a vegetable, defined as "[t]he edible part of" "[a] plant cultivated for an edible part, such as the root of the beet, the leaf of spinach, or the flower buds of broccoli or cauliflower." These are from the American Heritage Dictionary, not a scientific work, but my sense is that these are indeed the official definitions.

Now naturally in lay English, the matter is different: Apples aren't usually labeled vegetables, and the categories of vegetable and fruit are usually mutually exclusive. But in lay English, the distinction isn't ripened ovary vs. not a ripened ovary, but rather dessert vs. non-dessert, as the Supreme Court astutely captured in an 1893 import duties case:

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, 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 attempt to class tomatoes as fruit is not unlike a recent attempt to class beans as seeds, of which Mr. Justice Bradley, speaking for this court, said: "We do not see why they should be classified as seeds, any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term 'vegetables.' As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put. Beyond the common knowledge which we have on this subject, very little evidence is necessary, or can be produced."

Hoosier:
It's both. In the "language game" of botany, it is a fruit, because a seed pod. In the language game" of the kitchen, it is a veggie. (In the language game of "food fights," it is a projectile.

As I've noted before, a little Wittgenstein can clear up 75% of our intellectual dilemmas.
10.16.2008 2:34pm
Robert S. Porter (mail) (www):
To call them fruit is essentially useless. They are vegetables by use and that's all that really matters.

The people who go out of their way to point out that they are fruit are just being pedants.
10.16.2008 2:34pm
Mark AH:
The tomato is a vegetable. How do I know this? Because the Supreme Court said so 9-0 on May 10, 1883. The case was Nix v. Hedden. Look it up- it's a very neat historical tidbit.
10.16.2008 2:36pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
great illustration of the transactional structure of communication (and hence language). usage must shift with intended audience and context. both are "correct," with the most intersting definitions being those whose meanings are fixed despite transformations in audience and context.
10.16.2008 2:37pm
Mark AH:
My apologies: Nix v Hedden was decided on May 10, 1893, not 1883.
10.16.2008 2:41pm
Steve:
Mark, thanks for calling everyone's attention to the case which was extensively quoted in the post.
10.16.2008 2:45pm
FWB (mail):
One better, catsup was defined to be a vegetable by Congress. Congress could then show that children in school were getting their veggies.
10.16.2008 2:48pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
Not only is the tomato a fruit and a vegetable; it is also a berry.
10.16.2008 2:48pm
Cindy:
According to one of my college agronomy/horticulture professors, tomatoes are fruits in botany but vegetables in horticulture. The horticultural definition of fruits and vegetables is essentially the same as the Supreme Court's definition. It's also worth noting that "vegetable" isn't a botanical term. Botanically, what we call vegetables would be classified as roots or stems or leaves or tubers or something else specific.

Very few of the pedants who insist that tomatoes must be considered fruits seem to be aware that other vegetables (e.g., cucumbers and green beans) are also botanically fruits, and that some things we call fruits (e.g., strawberries) aren't. If you're going to be pedantic, you should do it right.
10.16.2008 2:51pm
SenatorX (mail):
Well for what it's worth I have a Botany degree and we learned it was a fruit for the reasons Eugene mentioned. The basic rule though is if it has seeds, it's a fruit, period. You can argue words can mean anything we all agree them to mean but in science it's better to have working definitions and move on from there.
10.16.2008 2:51pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Yes, but is Nix consistent with the original intention of the framers? I have in mind Federalist 269.17, where Hamilton clearly said that one major reason the Constitution needed to be enacted was to ensure that the tomato would receive its proper classification as a fruit, because the vigorous and imaginative cultivation of tomatoes was necessary to protect the public.
10.16.2008 2:54pm
blabla:
I have a better method for determining whether something is a fruit or a vegetable. If you can dig it out of the ground in Super Mario 2, it's a vegetable. If not, it's a fruit. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Super Mario had any tomatoes.
10.16.2008 2:54pm
$900,000,0000 Write Down (mail) (www):
Robert S. Porter:
Are you suggesting that tamatoes have their categorical home fixed by their function? I'm not sure such an instrumental approach offers the appropriate guidance and is any fun.

And, in any case, my kids and I regularly eat whole and quartered tomatoes like apples and peaches, free of any accompaniment.
10.16.2008 2:59pm
byomtov (mail):
catsup was defined to be a vegetable by Congress.

Actually, it was the USDA under Reagan.

To be fair, some quick Googling reveals it was mostly a PR blunder.
10.16.2008 2:59pm
$900,000,0000 Write Down (mail) (www):
Lest ye think Professor's Volokh's ruminations be merely miscellaneous and not central to your salvation, remember that you are commanded to Produce fruits consistent with repentance.
10.16.2008 3:03pm
mal (mail):
The difference between intelligence and wisdom:

Intelligence - knowing tomatoes are fruit

Wisdom - knowing not to put them in fruit salad
10.16.2008 3:03pm
Hoosier:
bymotov--In addition to which: why not? It is made with tomatoes, and it has more lycopene per serving than do tomatoes.

Yum!
10.16.2008 3:06pm
Hoosier:
mal

Wisdom - knowing not to put them in fruit salad

What?!!
10.16.2008 3:07pm
MisterBigTop (mail):
"tomatoes are fruits in botany but vegetables in horticulture."

This is my understanding as well.

It reminds me of the number zero. In some areas in mathematics, 0 is not a natural number, but in other areas, it is.
10.16.2008 3:11pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
Am I wrong, or would any fruit also count as a vegetable under the AHD definition? That's crazy.

"a. A plant cultivated for an edible part, such as the root of the beet, the leaf of spinach, or the flower buds of broccoli or cauliflower. b. The edible part of such a plant."

To get common parlance right, they need to add "non-tasty" into b, I think.
10.16.2008 3:12pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
Any edible fruit, I mean.
10.16.2008 3:13pm
Paul McKaskle (mail):
At one time (and, likely, still) the definition in the California Penal Code of what constitued grand theft for stealing fruit was set at a lower value than it was for stealing vegetables. Tomatoes were classified as fruit under these provisions. The law drawing the distinction between fruit and vegetables was probably aimed at discouraging thefts of tree fruit such as oranges or peaches (much easier to harvest and, perhaps, to sell than, say, cauliflower or potatoes) but the definition was wide enough to include tomatoes.
10.16.2008 3:13pm
TheOrpheus (mail) (www):
Whatever it is, the tomato certainly isn't terribly elitist.
10.16.2008 3:23pm
Milhouse (www):
I've been saying exactly this for decades. Also, avocado is both a fruit and a vegetable, but watermelon is only a fruit and not a vegetable.

It gets even more interesting when considering the peculiar dialect of English spoken by Orthodox Jews. Because Jewish law distinguishes between "fruit of the tree" and "fruit of the earth", i.e. any edible plant that does not grow on a tree, Orthodox Jews tend to adapt the words "fruit" and "vegetable" to this distinction, and speak of avocado as a fruit but watermelon and banana as vegetables.

Then there's Graham Leather's song Chocolate is a Vegetable; I've long disputed that, insisting that chocolate is only a fruit, not a vegetable, but I suppose Mr Leathers consulted the American Heritage Dictionary definition Eugene cited above.
10.16.2008 3:26pm
Patrick Stephens (mail) (www):
That the definition of fruit should ever be the subject of the Supreme Court only indicates that Congress is packed with vegetables.
10.16.2008 3:31pm
Kevin R (mail):
I have a better method for determining whether something is a fruit or a vegetable. If you can dig it out of the ground in Super Mario 2, it's a vegetable. If not, it's a fruit. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Super Mario had any tomatoes.


"Vegetable" would then have to include turtle shells, bombs, and magic potions that create doorways.
10.16.2008 3:32pm
RandomGuy (mail):
Next you'll probably try telling us that a whale isn't a fish.
10.16.2008 3:36pm
john w. (mail):

One better, catsup was defined to be a vegetable by Congress. Congress could then show that children in school were getting their veggies.



I've never understood the point of the objection to considering catsup as a vegetable -- other than as a rather lame attempt to make Reagan look foolish. Catsup is composed of about 90 percent (or more) of mashed-up tomatoes, with a small amount of vinegar, corn syrup and spices. So in what sense is it any less of a vegetable, nutritionally speaking, than, say, creamed corn, refried beans, or mashed carrots, etc.?
10.16.2008 3:38pm
Perry Dane:
Milhouse writes:
It gets even more interesting when considering the peculiar dialect of English spoken by Orthodox Jews. Because Jewish law distinguishes between "fruit of the tree" and "fruit of the earth", i.e. any edible plant that does not grow on a tree, Orthodox Jews tend to adapt the words "fruit" and "vegetable" to this distinction, and speak of avocado as a fruit but watermelon and banana as vegetables.
Not just Orthodox Jews. Any halfway observant Jew -- whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renwal, or whatever -- who recites blessings over food, whether all the time or even on occasion, will likely know that, for purposes of Jewish law, bananas are vegetables and olives are fruits. And most Jews of any stripe who are native speakers of English will, I think, be aware that this same schema doesn't automatically carry over to non-liturgical settings.

I wouldn't bring this up, except that the conflation of "observant Jew" and "Orthodox Jew" is a conceptual-linguistic mistake that has real and bad consequences. (No comment on whether the "tomato is a fruit" idea is another such mistake, or something else entirely.)
10.16.2008 3:45pm
NickM (mail) (www):
There went the false advertising suit for not labeling it V7F1.

Nick
10.16.2008 3:45pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
So in what sense is it any less of a vegetable, nutritionally speaking, than, say, creamed corn, refried beans, or mashed carrots, etc.?


In the sense that there is less OF it. A serving of creamed corn or mashed carrots is about a half cup. If you're going to sit down and eat a half cup of ketchup with a spoon, sure, call it a vegetable. If you're talking about a squirt of ketchup on a hamburger bun, not so much.
10.16.2008 3:50pm
john w. (mail):

In the sense that there is less OF it. A serving of creamed corn or mashed carrots is about a half cup. If you're going to sit down and eat a half cup of ketchup with a spoon, sure, call it a vegetable. If you're talking about a squirt of ketchup on a hamburger bun, not so much.



Maybe you or I wouldn't consume a half a cup of catsup at one meal, but we are talking about school-kids here. I've never actually measured, but I'm quite sure that my children would easily consume a half a cup of catsup with a hamburger and fries if only their mother would let them get away with it.
10.16.2008 4:00pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
The root (ha!) of the problem is that fruit has two meanings, a sweet wholesome snack as well as a seed pod thingy.

Apparently fruitarians rely on the seed pod definition (according to a tract left at my father-in-law's house) because one can consume the seed pod without harm to the plant itself. In contrast, vegetarians who eat carrots and cauliflowers have murdered those plants -- there is nothing left of them. I am not sure where they stand on the "cut and come again" plants like parsley or leaf lettuce.
10.16.2008 4:03pm
Sigivald (mail):
KevinR said:
"Vegetable" would then have to include turtle shells, bombs, and magic potions that create doorways.


Damn right it would.

Brings a whole new light to the "mixed vegetables" side order...
10.16.2008 4:08pm
wfjag:

Patrick Stephens:
That the definition of fruit should ever be the subject of the Supreme Court only indicates that Congress is packed with vegetables.

That depends on whether Justices are confirmed based on whether they will decide cases based on "fairness", or on the basis of plain meaning, original intent and respect for long-established precedent.

Knowing that a tomato was held a vegetable in Nix, does that holding govern Cherry Tomatoes?

And, not all Catsup is Tomato Catsup.
10.16.2008 4:20pm
MarkField (mail):

Catsup is composed of about 90 percent (or more) of mashed-up tomatoes, with a small amount of vinegar, corn syrup and spices. So in what sense is it any less of a vegetable, nutritionally speaking, than, say, creamed corn, refried beans, or mashed carrots, etc.?


In addition to Gabriel's point, there is no corn syrup in a tomato. Substituting catsup for a tomato is nutritionally foolish.
10.16.2008 4:38pm
Abandon:
Pffff. Amateurs! You find the tomato hard to classify? Try the platypus!
10.16.2008 4:51pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
Botanically, of course, tomato is a fruit, as are bell peppers and eggplant. There are also vegetable, particularly since they are not animal or mineral.
In other arenas, tomatos seem to be fruit or (non-fruit) vegetable based on what classification is most convenient at the time.

I seem to recall having read once that rhubarb is officially classed as a fruit, because it's used in pies and other desserts, even though the part of the plant used never bears seed.
10.16.2008 5:09pm
Fub:
The tomato, it seems to me, is both a fruit and a vegetable. It is indeed, botanically speaking, a fruit, a term that's technically defined as "The ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant, together with accessory parts, containing the seeds and occurring in a wide variety of forms."
Yep. Just like the peanut.
10.16.2008 5:30pm
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
Where do mushrooms come into the picture? Fungi aren't plants. In fact, according to Wikipedia,

The fungi are more closely related to animals than plants, yet the discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi, known as mycology, often falls under a branch of botany.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fungus

Yet kitchen-wise, we treat them as vegetables.
10.16.2008 5:33pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
Milhouse: "[W]atermelon is only a fruit and not a vegetable." How so?

FWIW, we have "vegetable plates" here that include things like macaroni &cheese.
10.16.2008 5:54pm
Griffin (mail):
KevinR said:

"Vegetable" would then have to include turtle shells, bombs, and magic potions that create doorways.


Yes, doorways through which you sometimes find ... mushrooms! Q.E.D. subspace potions are vegetables.
10.16.2008 6:50pm
Mark E (mail):
I always thought that the defination of a fruit was something that tasted good and was good for you while a vegetable was something that didn't taste good but you were forced to eat by your mother.
10.16.2008 7:19pm
SenatorX (mail):
Where do mushrooms come into the picture?

(Fungi are their own Kingdom. Plantae, Animalia, Fungi, Protista, Eubacteria, and Archaea.

Though since the mushroom was always explained as the fruiting structure of the fungus that holds the reproductive spores you could probably argue its closer to a fruit than a vegetable.
10.16.2008 7:20pm
CDR D (mail):
>>>Is the Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?<<<


When I read the title of the post, I immediately thought this was going to more dung about Palin.
10.16.2008 7:37pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
I've never understood the point of the objection to considering catsup as a vegetable -- other than as a rather lame attempt to make Reagan look foolish.
That became more obvious when the same folks who threw a conniption at classifying catsup as a vegetable backed the effort to classify tofu as meat.

Personally: animal, vegetable, mineral, where does the tomato fit?
10.16.2008 8:55pm
Aleks:
In colloquial English the fruits/grains of annual plants like tomatoes, peppers, corn etc. are called "vegetables". "Fruit" seems to be reserved for perennial plants, especially those that are trees or shrubs.
10.16.2008 8:59pm
Hoosier:
Can we agree that rice wine is not a wine but a beer?

The platypus is a holdover from the days before the dinosaurs when synapsids began to evolve into true mammals. Thus, they lay eggs, but nurse their young. They are "true-mammals," not "mammal-like reptiles." They may be reasonably closely related to marsupials. Or they may not. They also have 10 (!) sex chromosomes, because they are little freaks! Yow!
10.16.2008 9:40pm
Jer:
Please. Pop culture has already addressed this issue.

See the TV show Full House, Season 4, episode 18 and 19, airing 2/8/91 &2/15/91 (Jessie goes skydiving as his last adventure before marriage, but then bride-to-be Rebecca must rescue him from "tomato country.")

A tomato is a fruit.
10.16.2008 9:47pm
Jmaie (mail):
To get common parlance right, they need to add "non-tasty" into b, I think. - you mean brussel sprouts?

Perhaps the 1893 court did not realize that tomatoes are citrus fruit. Or is there a category of citrus veggies I'm not aware of?
10.16.2008 11:02pm
Hoosier:
Jer

It is so terribly disturbing that you know that. I may have to leave this blog forever.
10.16.2008 11:14pm
Fub:
LarryA wrote at 10.16.2008 7:55pm:
Personally: animal, vegetable, mineral, where does the tomato fit?
Anywhere that "Puberty Love" is not being played.
10.16.2008 11:51pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):

Personally: animal, vegetable, mineral, where does the tomato fit?


And where does the Hostess Twinkie fit? (My guess would be mineral.)
10.17.2008 12:39am
Randy R. (mail):
Unfortunately, the dessert/non-dessert dichotomy doesn't much help us either. Sweet potatos are certainly a vegetable, yet can be used in pie. Ditto for pumpkins. Walnut are nuts, but can be used in pie too.

You can't make a broccoli pie, unless you add make is a savory one, such as a quiche. Ditto for the tomato.
10.17.2008 2:02am
TruePath (mail) (www):
There is no bright line distinction between fruits and vegetables as the words are used in common parlance. Rather these words are defined by similarity to archetypal examples of the category, e.g., it's vegetable if it's like other produce that is sufficiently central to our notion of vegetables.

----

But while this is fun and all I'm constantly amazed that some people actually care about this crap. I mean the point of language is ultimately to communicate. Whether or not a particular word extends to cover some corner case is purely a matter of stipulation. So long as you use your words in a fashion that conveys your meaning to your audience it doesn't really matter.

When talking about fruits vs. vegetables it's just a bit silly but it's amazing how many fallacies people fall into because they assume that there are objective firmly fixed facts about word meaning the way that there are objective firmly fixed facts about physics.
10.17.2008 3:06am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Wouldn't the answer depend on whether homosexuality is an inborn trait, or whether it is a matter of choice?
10.17.2008 6:09am
Randy R. (mail):
Duffy: If we don't outlaw same sex marriage, tomatoes will stop reproducing. And then there will no longer be any sauce.
10.17.2008 1:04pm
Fedya (www):
True Path wrote:

But while this is fun and all I'm constantly amazed that some people actually care about this crap. I mean the point of language is ultimately to communicate. Whether or not a particular word extends to cover some corner case is purely a matter of stipulation. So long as you use your words in a fashion that conveys your meaning to your audience it doesn't really matter.


When you're dealing with people, this makes sense. Unfortunately, you're talking to a group of lawyers, a profession that seems to want the language to be as imprecise and confusing as possible, so that we normals will be forced to rely upon their services. :-p

Remember the infamous quote, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is"?
10.17.2008 4:05pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
You can't make a broccoli pie... Ditto for the tomato.
Pizza?
When you're dealing with people, this makes sense. Unfortunately, you're talking to a group of lawyers, a profession that seems to want the language to be as imprecise and confusing as possible, so that we normals will be forced to rely upon their services.
The real tragedy is that there are so many laws where this kind of trivia actually makes a difference.
10.17.2008 6:06pm
byomtov (mail):
Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine,

Hmm. Somehow tomatoes are not what I think of when I think of "the fruit of the vine."
10.18.2008 12:08am
Steven Hupp (mail):

You can't make a broccoli pie... Ditto for the tomato.


What, you've never heard of green tomato pie?
10.18.2008 10:32pm
Duncan C. Coffee (mail):
Hmm, I was just discussing this with my wife. She echoed Cindy on the issue of cucumbers, adding that she has found in cabbages what distinctly appear to be seeds! So cabbage is a fruit too?

I can't say why people pick on tomatoes as a non-vegetable. (I think of vegetables as a superset of fruit anyway ... think exclusive sets "animal", "vegetable", and "mineral".) Similarly, I can't figure out why people (usually the same people - the American Pedant Party) hammer on the alleged rule against using "hopefully" as a disjunct, but never on "simply" or "frankly". If you can't say, "Hopefully the criminal will be caught" because "No one hopes to be caught!", the does that mean you can't say, "Frankly, the criminal is a lying scoundrel"? Lying scoundrels aren't frank!

Of course, the meaning of the original sentences is clear; pedants have simply decided to make war on primary usage of "hopefully" because it comes so naturally - just as it is naturally to classify foods by usage, rather than botany.
10.19.2008 1:08pm