You say “toe-may-toe,” I say “toe-mah-toe.” I say a tomato is a fruit. You say it’s a vegetable. Which one of us is right?
Before we can figure out exactly what a tomato is, let’s first take a look at what fruits and vegetables are. As it turns out, there are a couple of different ways to define each.
Scientists define fruits as the parts of a plant that bear seeds. Cooks define fruits as the edible parts of a plant with a sweet flavor.
On the other hand, cooks define vegetables as the edible parts of a plant with a savory flavor. These can include, for example, the leaves (lettuce), stems (celery), roots (carrots) and flowers (broccoli) of plants. Scientists have no specific definition for vegetables.
Using these definitions, we can begin to answer the question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. According to scientists, tomatoes are clearly fruits, since they are the part of the tomato plant that bears seeds.
Cooks, however, often classify tomatoes as vegetables since they are the edible part of the tomato plant and have a savory rather than sweet taste.
In case you’re wondering, savory is one of the five basic tastes — along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Savory is a pleasant “meaty” taste with a lasting coating on the tongue.
So is this just one of those curious questions without any real significance? No!
The question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable actually made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court! In the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, for purposes of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, tomatoes are vegetables.
The Supreme Court relied on the fact that tomatoes are usually used as vegetables since they’re normally served with dinner and not dessert. The ruling, though, only applied to tax law and did not attempt to reclassify tomatoes scientifically.
When all is said and done, tomatoes are fruits according to scientists. However, many people — and most cooks — will continue to look at them as vegetables.
And if you’re wondering if tomatoes are the only fruits that get treated like vegetables, they’re not! Eggplants, bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins are all fruits that similarly get cooked as vegetables.
Some states have particular feelings about tomatoes, though. New Jersey officially named the tomato its state vegetable. Arkansas, on the other hand, saw both sides of the issue when it declared the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as the official state fruit and state vegetable!