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Is the Tomato a Vegetable or a Fruit

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliMay 10, 2012

On May 10, 1883, in the case of Nix vs. Hedden, the United States Supreme Court declared the tomato to be vegetable, and thus subject to the import tax of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883. Still, over one hundred twenty-five years later, the question still goes back and forth, "Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?" The answer is that it is both.

Gardening picture

Plant foods that are not grains, seeds, or nuts are classified in popular usage as either vegetables or fruits.  These are culinary terms, but any child can tell which is which.  Basically, a fruit is sweet.  Vegetables may have some sweetness, but their primary taste is sour, bitter, or umami.  Sometimes fruits are sweetened further with sugar.  Vegetables are usually not.  Vegetables are often flavored with salt.  Fruits are usually not. 


Rhubarb is a culinary fruit and botanically a stem.

Photo by Arria Belli, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1883,  John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix grudgingly and under protest, paid the import tariff on their tomatoes.  The new Tariff Act made imported vegetables subject to the tariff, but fruits were not.  The Nixes knew as well as anyone that the tomato is a fruit, that is, the seed-bearing structure of the plant.  They filed an action against Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York in an effort to reclaim the duties paid.  The court ultimately ruled that although the tomato is botanically a fruit, in popular usage it is a vegetable.  It is eaten as a main course, not a dessert.  To back up his decision, Justice Horace Gray cited other trials where the common usage of a word was ruled to take precedence over any specialized definitions, and the Nixes lost their case. 


Squash is a culinary vegetable and a botanical fruit.

Photo by Californiacondor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When asking if a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit, it is necessary to define fruit.  First, there is the botanical fruit.  This is the seed-bearing structure of a plant.  This includes traditional "fruit" like apples, oranges, and watermelon, but also includes things like beans and peppers.  It also includes countless varieties of inedible fruits, from nightshade berries to milkweed pods. 

Second, there is the culinary fruit.  This is a food of plant origin that is sweet or sweetened prior to eating.  The vast majority of culinary fruits are botanical fruits.  Rhubarb is an exception.  It is botanically a stem but is a culinary fruit.  European Union law states that the carrot is a fruit when it is used to make jam. 

A culinary vegetable can be any part of the plant.  The listing could go on and on, but here are a few examples.  Beets and radishes are roots.  Celery is a stem.  Cabbage and lettuce are leaves.  Cauliflower and broccoli are flower buds.  Potatoes are tubers.  Lima beans and corn are seeds.  Onions are bulbs.  Eggplant and squash are botanical fruits. 

Botanically, a vegetable is any member of the vegetable kingdom.  This is not a part of a plant, but the whole plant or species.  Botanically, tomato plants are vegetables and tomatoes come from vegetables. 

Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit?  It is definitely a vegetable, as popular usage of the word and culinary usage of the item show.  Is it a fruit?  Yes and no.  Botanically, it is a fruit of course, but according to popular usage of the word fruit and culinary usage of the item, it is not.  Is a tomato a vegetable or fruit?  Perhaps the best answer is simply, "Yes."

Tomato photograph public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Photo by Penny Greb.

  About Kelli Kallenborn  
Kelli KallenbornKelli has lived in California for 25 years and really enjoys the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems. You can also follow Kelli on Google.

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