Is the humble tomato a fruit or a vegetable? As with any good question, the long answer short is yes. Let’s explore the confusion together.
Somehow, you found yourself wondering: Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?
So you pulled that phone out of your pocket, typed the question into Google, and stumbled upon this article. (Did I forget to say welcome to Home Cook World?)
It would be so easy to tell you that tomatoes are either fruits or vegetables and be done with it. But, as it turns out, the answer isn’t really that simple. See, the answer depends on who you ask—and their professional background.
You’d think that for a plant humanity has been growing for 7,000 years, we would have settled this by now. But the truth is we haven’t.
Ask a botanist, and they will tell you that tomatoes are fruit without question. Ask a lawyer, and… well, let’s just say they’ll have a lot to say about why tomatoes are actually vegetables.
Botanically, Tomatoes Are Fruits
From a botanical point of view, the tomato is a fruit. Period!
The botanical definition of “fruit,” writes the New York Botanical Garden, is very specific: A fruit is essentially the mature, ripened ovary that holds and disperses the seeds of the plant.
All fruits come from flowers, which house the reproductive parts of the plant. After the flower is fertilized, writes the University of Minnesota’s Nathan Hecht, it grows into a fruit that holds the seeds for the next generation.
In other words, plants reproduce with fruits. They can’t move, but they can grow sweet, tasty fruits that get eaten by animals. They eat the seeds along with the fruits and then excrete them into the soil. Once excreted into the soil, the seeds grow into plants again.
Tomatoes fit this description perfectly. They grow on flowers and have seeds. Oh, and they taste damn right delicious!
Legally, Tomatoes Are Vegetables
From a legal—we’re talking Supreme Court legal—point of view, the tomato is a vegetable.
Why, you’re probably wondering?
Our story begins in the 1880s when all goods imported into the United States were being slapped with tariffs of 30 to 40%.
These tariffs made domestically produced goods cheaper than internationally imported goods. But they also drove up the average price of everything for consumers, who carry the burden of such tax.
So much so that the general consensus amongst experts was that the tariffs were hurting rather than protecting the U.S. economy.
So the acting president at the time—President Arthur—charged a special commission with the task of recommending a revision of the tariff on imported goods.
The members of the commission proposed substantial cuts to the tariffs. But the proposed cuts were perceived as a threat by more than one American mogul. So interests intervened, and the cuts got… er, cut by the time they reached Congress.
The reduction, known as the Tariff of 1883, was signed into effect on March 3, 1883.
Expectedly, the bill didn’t fulfill its original objectives, and it reduced tariffs on imported goods by only 1.5% on average. But it did introduce a dichotomy for produce importers: The duty on imported fruit was abolished but continued to be levied on imported vegetables.
So if you imported fruit, you owed no duty. But if you imported vegetables, you did.
All of a sudden, importing fruit became a better business than importing vegetables.
The Nix family, importers of tomatoes, took the Port of New York to court in an attempt to recover the duties that they had paid them. Their claim was simple, and many would argue logical: They owed nothing because, botanically, the tomato is a fruit.
For something that’s already a botanical fact, proving the claim in court proved more difficult than anyone had expected.
The Nix v. Hedden case finally came before the Supreme Court in 1893, where the justices ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit, regardless of the botanical definition.
Although tomatoes are “fruit of the vine,” Justice Horace Gray noted, they should be considered vegetables because they are typically eaten as a main course, and not a dessert.
What About the Dictionary Definitions of Tomatoes?
The English-speaking world’s most prestigious dictionaries leave little room for interpretation: To them, the tomato is a fruit.
According to Merriam-Webster, Americans’ go-to dictionary since its founding in the year 1831, the tomato is a “large, rounded, edible, pulpy berry.” And a berry, as you can probably guess by now, is by definition a fruit.
Encyclopædia Britannica also considers tomatoes as fruits. The general knowledge encyclopedia goes on to explain that the fruits are eaten in salads, served cooked, or used as an ingredient in various prepared dishes.
Last but not least, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines the tomato as “a round, red fruit with a lot of seeds” and the Oxford Leaners’ Dictionary calls it a “soft fruit with a lot of juice and shiny red skin.”
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. According to botanists, tomatoes are fruits because they have seeds. According to lawyers, they are vegetables because they are eaten as a main dish and not as a dessert.
Let’s just settle this once and for all and say that the tomato can be both a fruit and a vegetable, shall we?