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Fruit vs. Vegetable: A Return to 5th Grade Science Class

What makes a fruit a ‘fruit’ and a vegetable a ‘vegetable’? And why is the tomato always stuck in the middle? Let’s debunk all of these debates in 5 minutes or less.

People generally agree that apples, oranges, bananas, grapes and other sweet produce all classify as ‘fruits.’ Likewise, you toss together some sliced carrots, onions, and lettuce, and you’ve got a big bowl of veggies. No hour-long debate. No decade-long family feud.

But mention the tomato, and everyone loses their minds! (Insert obligatory Heath Ledger Joker meme.)

All humor aside, this is a pretty simple mystery to unravel. In fact, most grade schoolers can explain it away in a second. But we’re so busy ‘adulting’ over here, that we haven’t had the chance to look it up. To put an end to the age-old debate, let’s finally round up the answers. Inquisitive minds, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

What makes a fruit a fruit?

In nature, plants are made up of many parts. So to be brief, the technical ‘fruit’ of a plant comes from the edible seed-bearing section. If you think in anatomical terms, fruits like apples, lemons, limes, and oranges all have seeds. This makes perfect sense since they derive from the ovary of the flowering plant.

But wait a minute—what about cucumbers? Green peppers? Pumpkins? There are so many so-called ‘vegetables’ that have seeds just like our favorite fruits. So which is it?


Photo: Lukas Budimaier, Unsplash

The answer isn’t so simple. But we’ll get to that in a second.

First, use the following 5 criteria for determining whether your produce is in fact a ‘fruit’:

  1. Ask yourself: Where did it come from? Vegetables come from ‘parts’ of the plant, such as the root, stem or leaf, whereas fruits always come from the ovary.

  2. Ask yourself: Are there seeds? While this condition isn’t foolproof, there’s a good chance the produce is considered a fruit if it has seeds (at least from a botanist’s perspective).

  3. Ask yourself: What does it taste like? Culturally speaking, if it’s sweet-tasting, it’s considered a fruit.

  4. Ask yourself: Do people eat it as part of a meal, or as a solo snack? As expected, the majority of fruits are NOT consumed at lunch or dinner. Instead, we partake in their pulpy pleasure as a quick bite in the morning or in between.

  5. Ask yourself: What would a judge say? Way back in 1893, Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray ruled that a tomato is a vegetable because of its role in the kitchen (thus, it was taxed as such). From a legal standpoint, science doesn’t matter as much as the common assumption.

What makes a vegetable a vegetable?

As aforementioned, a vegetable does NOT come from the reproductive segment of the plant, but from its ‘parts.’ So that means it pretty much derives from anywhere else. Still, the debate lives on due to so many veggies containing seeds.

Think about it. Avocados, green beans, jalapenos, squash, corn—they’re all comprised of seeds! To explain why such produce is considered a ‘veggie’ in the eyes of most people, we have to put the textbook aside. That’s because a vegetable is not a botanical term like ‘fruit.’ Instead, it’s a cultural construct.

For so many generations, home cooks and professional chefs have divided produce into two categories. Anything overtly sweet and tart was designated as a fruit (to be devoured as a snack), while anything savory was considered a vegetable (an ingredient prepared as part of a meal). This is where today’s definition comes from. Apparently, tradition trumps all else.


Photo: Megan Hodges, Unsplash

So, what is a tomato?

Now that you understand the two classifications, it’s easy to see why foods like the tomato, pepper or eggplant get stuck in the middle. Scientifically, they’re classified as fruits. But our palates tell us otherwise. Tomatoes are not only on the savory side, but we also tend to cook them as a complement to other dishes.

Can you imagine slicing an orange for your turkey sandwich? Chopping up little bits of nectarine for your Italian pasta dish? Or slathering the pulp of a lemon on your pizza crust? You get the picture.

While your brain is still whirling, we’ve got a couple more mind-blowing tidbits. Did you know a banana is a berry? Or, that peaches, pears, and plums are part of the rose family?

We’ll just leave those there for next time.


Photo: Daniz Altin, Unsplash

We hope you have a handle on the fruit and veggie war! Come back soon for more Made In produce pointers.  

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