Is tomato fruit or vegetable? : The big debate


Tomato is an edible fruit of the nightshade family. It is also a commonly known vegetable used as an ingredient or a salad with the meals. So, it is similar to both the fruits as well as vegetables in one way or the other. But what exactly it is? Is tomato fruit or vegetable, or both, or something between the two?

This question has even seen the light of the courtroom. For so many years, judges had to baffle up with the idea of what actually a tomato is and followed a long legal procedure to obtain a convincing answer.

In common perception, a tomato is a vegetable because of its uses in cooking. While others consider it to be a fruit for scientific reasons, the big debate has been going on for ever. Let’s have a look at it and try to reach a conclusion.

Is tomato fruit or vegetable?

What makes tomato a fruit?

To answer this, apparently we need to know what makes any food item a fruit?

So, what exactly a fruit is?

In simplest terms, a fruit is that part of the plant which contains seeds. This part develops from the ovary of a flowering plant.

Thus, a fruit is actually the part with seeds. Said the other way, every plant produce which contains seeds is actually a fruit. A fruit does even more – it is responsible for the reproductive functions of the plant.

In botany, a tomato is considered a fruit since it contains an ovary together with seeds of its flowering plant.

However, on comparing it with other edible fruits, a tomato has much lower sugar content and is not that much sweet. It is acidic and sour in taste, which makes it different to most other fruits.

It’s surprising that there are so many fruits we have been using as vegetables. Not just tomatoes but peas, lady finger, brinjals are all fruits. Know all of the vegetables which are in fact fruits.

So, the tomato is a fruit. But why is it a vegetable? What actually is tomato fruit or vegetable?

What makes tomato a vegetable?

Vegetables are all edible parts of the plant except the one with seeds i.e. food items which come from leaves, stems and roots of the plant. Botanically, a tomato isn’t a vegetable.

While botanical classification makes tomato a fruit, its culinary classification makes it a vegetable.

Usually, tomato is either eaten raw in a salad or in main course of the meal. It cannot be served as a dessert. Cooking seems incomplete without adding this wonder ‘vegetable’. Dishes made with tomato are savory unlike the sweet ones which are made from fruits.

Thus, it is a culinary (cooking) vegetable due to its method of use in the kitchen.  Tomatoes are cooked and treated the same way as other vegetables.

The matter of debate: Is tomato fruit or vegetable?

A tomato has some characteristics of a fruit while others of a vegetable. In fact, tomatoes are not the only food source with this ambiguity: peas, lady fingers and many more foods are cooked like vegetables though they are fruits.

On the other hand, tomatoes also have a few differences from both fruits and vegetables:

  • They are not sweet unlike many well known fruits.
  • They are acidic enough which is not the case with most vegetables.
  • While in most cooking methods, they are treated as vegetables but are used as fruits in home canning practices.

So, the question still remains is how to classify a tomato. Is tomato fruit or vegetable? This question was raised long back in America in 1887.

During those days, new tariff laws were introduced imposing a duty on vegetables but not on fruits. Thus, the legal status of tomatoes was of prime importance as to know if a duty fee had to be paid on the tomatoes or not.

The Supreme Court of America settled this controversy in 1893 by declaring tomato officially as a vegetable. This judgement was based on the popular definition of tomatoes and their uses as a vegetable. However, the apex court confined its statement only to the interpretation of Tariff laws. It said nothing about reclassification of tomatoes as either fruits or vegetables for botanical or any other purposes.

As of now, several US states have accepted tomato as a state fruit or vegetable. While tomatoes are the state vegetable of New Jersey, another state Arkansas designates them as both state fruit and state vegetable. Such ambiguity exists all over the world, the same principle works in India.

The ambiguity still holds. Tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable depending on context. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, tomatoes are a fruit labeled in grocery stores as a vegetable due to (the taste) and nutritional purposes.

Thus, the legal status of tomatoes is as a vegetable while they are botanically fruits.

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