Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable (Views of 6 Industries)
I say “toh-mah-toe”, you may say “toe-may-toe”. I call it a fruit, you probably call it a vegetable. Which one is it? Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Could it be both? I like to refer to this as Shrodinger’s tomato, as the tomato can be both a fruit and a vegetable, depending on the way you look at it. Much like the famous Schrodinger's cat experiment.
To answer this question, we're going to take a look at things from different professional perspectives, one by one. But if you need a quick answer refer to the table below.
Is a Tomato Technically a Fruit or a Vegetable?
What Do They Call It?
Savory not sweet
Low in fructose
Develops from the ovaries of the plant
Plant is a non-woody annual
Acidic enough to process in a water bath
US Supreme court  and the EU  say so
If Someone Asks You This Question Right Now...
What Would You Say?
Chefs Say the Tomato Is a Vegetable
Tomatoes are not as sweet as apples, pineapples, pears, papayas or even bananas. No matter how you see it, from all logical perspectives these sweet plant products are fruits. Tomatoes, on the other hand, have a savory taste, and as such, are usually used in savory dishes. They are often found in salads and are sometimes also a part of the main course in a meal, albeit, in different ways across the globe. Typically "fruits" are never a part of the main course. They are almost always included in desserts. But, you would never dice some tomatoes and add them to your ice-cream, would you?
To conclude this argument from the chef's perspective, tomatoes are vegetables because they have a savory taste. Since most people across the globe can associate themselves with food more than biology, it is natural for the tomato to be widely termed as a vegetable. This is evident from a stroll through our supermarkets where tomatoes are sold in the vegetable section.
But, before you leave this page thinking you've got your answer, you should also know that the Rhubarb is considered a fruit in the kitchen because it's sweet. Do you accept the chefs' argument that the tomato is a vegetable?
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.— Miles Klington
Nutritionists Argue That It Is a Vegetable
From the nutritional point of view, vegetables generally contain higher amounts of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, whereas fruits contain higher quantities of macronutrients. Macronutrients are energy giving and include fruit sugars (fructose), carbohydrates, fats, and proteins .
If you ask a nutritionist, for a one-word answer on what separates a fruit from a vegetable, they are going to say "fructose". To put things into perspective, a medium, whole ripe tomato contains around 1.7 g of fructose  and a medium-sized apple, approximately 3 inches in diameter contains 11 g of fructose . This relatively low amount of fructose content is the reason nutritionists argue that the tomato is a vegetable.
The Tomato Is Botanically a Fruit
Merriam-Webster  defines a fruit as: "The usually edible reproductive body of a seed plant; especially: one having a sweet pulp associated with the seed."
Oxford  defines a fruit as: "The sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food."
Even though these definitions are not wrong, they are not botanically accurate. The fruit of a plant is that fleshy or dry entity which develops on the fertilization of the ovary of a flower and contains seeds. Thus, by definition, the tomato is botanically a fruit. Through this article, I have been and will continue to discuss this topic without any bias. But I must add, that I agree with the botanists. If someone were to ask me what I think about this topic, I would definitely say the tomato is a fruit.
As you see above, I've bolded the term "contains seeds". Today, there are plenty of seedless fruits on the market. Technically, these should not be called fruits, but because they are in all other ways identical to their seed-bearing counterparts, even the seedless varieties are termed fruits. Plants bearing seedless fruit cannot be germinated from seed, as the fruit itself is sterile (no seeds).
There are different methods used to grow seedless fruit, for instance, a seed-bearing plant is diagonally sliced on the stem and placed in a rooting hormone before it is planted. You can read more on this at Wonderpolis. If you want to learn to grow seedless watermelon at home, this article on Dengarden is really interesting.
Of the many people who argue that the tomato is a fruit, there is a handful that wonders whether the tomato is a berry. Yes, the tomato is, in fact, a berry. A berry is a fruit which has developed from a single ovary and has multiple seeds. Fun-fact: A banana is also a berry, and the strawberry isn't. Actually, the strawberry is in most part, not even a fruit. Check out the video below for more on this.
This Video May Change Your Perspective: Highly Recommended
Let's Not Forget the Humble Vegetable
While on the topic, you may be wondering what would be botanically considered a vegetable. Botany doesn't have a term ''vegetable" in its dictionary as the term is not used in biological taxonomy. The only way the terms botany and vegetable come together is through economic botany. From the aspects of an economic botanist, the tomato is a vegetable.
A vegetable in the English language, however, can be defined as any herbaceous edible part of the plant apart from the fruit, such as the leaves, stem, tubers, bulbs, and flowers. On a lighter note, I really like this definition by Rebecca Rupp:
Vegetables, traditionally, are the stuff kids push around on their plates and hide under their mashed potatoes— Rebecca Rupp
Summing up This Confusing Section
I am sure that this section which discusses the categorization of the tomato botanically can be very confusing to most readers. Let me sum it up: Taking biology into consideration, the tomato bears seeds and is, therefore, a fruit. Biological classification does not have a definition for the term vegetable. Therefore, biologically speaking, the tomato can never be a vegetable.
Also, from a botanists point of view, the tomato on its own has no relevance. The tomato plant, however, is a fruit-bearing plant which propagates through the germination of fertilized seeds which develop from a fertilized ovary. So if you ask a botanist whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable, they would say the tomato is a fruit.
Horticulturists Categorize It as a Vegetable
Horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants. But, why do horticulturists classify the tomato as a vegetable? There are two reasons:
- Tomato plants are annual crops. Vegetables are plants that usually complete their life cycle in a year.
- Food that grows on herbaceous plants are vegetables and food that grows on woody plants are fruits.
They Are Fruits in the Canning Industry
The tomato canning industry processes many different products such as tomato paste, ketchup, sauce, salsa, canned tomatoes, pizza sauce, etc. This list can go on. The canning industry processes fruits and vegetables in a different way. Fruits go through a process in a water bath, whereas vegetables go through a pressure cooker, termed water bath canning and pressure canning respectively . Since tomatoes are acidic enough to process through a water bath, the home canning industry categorizes tomatoes as fruits.
They Are Vegetables for Trade Purposes
Both in the United States  and the EU , the raw tomato is classified as a vegetable for trade purposes. But, before you decide to use this reasoning in conversations, you should know that the law is not always smart. For instance, in November 2011 the US Congress classified the pizza as a vegetable, yes you read that right!
Why was this done? It was a move to keep the pizza and french fries on school lunch lines in opposition to the Obama administration's push to make school lunches healthier. Read the news article for details.
The Probable Origin of This Debate
In 1886, John Nix a produce importer imported a lot of tomatoes to the Port of New York and the customs official of the time, Edward Hedden demanded that he pay a tax of 10% in accordance with an 1883 Tariff Act which demanded import duty on foreign vegetables. However, Nix, refused to do so, stating that tomatoes are fruits and not vegetables. This matter eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court and in 1893, the Supreme Court in the Nix v Hedden case ruled that the tomato must be classified as a vegetable and not a fruit. The Court upheld this decision on the fact that the Tariff Act of 1883 used the ordinary meaning of the words fruit and vegetable rather than the botanical meaning .
The Tariff of 1833 was abandoned by the US government in favor of the new Black Tariff of 1842 which was eventually replaced by the Walker Tariff. But, even today the fresh tomato is classified as a vegetable for all trade purposes.
Despite the decision by the US Supreme Court, many states in the US have decided to play around with the terminology of the tomato to suit local needs, for instance:
- Arkansas: The tomato is the state fruit and vegetable.
- Ohio: The tomato is the sate vegetable.
- Tennessee: The tomato is the state fruit.
Just to point out how silly this is outside the trade environment, the watermelon is the state vegetable of Oklahoma.
Governments and courtrooms have been arguing on this topic for centuries, literally. With the decision by the US Congress ruling that the pizza is a vegetable, the debate on whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable kicked off again. People must realize that words are defined by lexicographers and how we use them changes across professions. After reading this article you would now be able to use the right terminology when dealing with people depending on the industry you're talking about.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Brandon Lobo