header image

The Age-old Question: Is it a Fruit or a Vegetable?

by Lindsay Wickham
Manager, County Farm Bureau Relations & Development


When we were holding our August Grassroots planning session, the commodity being fruit, someone asked if we could include a story on tomatoes. This immediately brought up the question, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Hopefuly, I am about to put that question to rest. Obviously, I am hinting that nothing is ever that simple.

What many people do not know is that I have a plant science degree from Cornell University. My specialty was pomology, which is the study of fruits and fruit science. In the Pomology Department, we never talked about vegetables, mainly because everything we looked at and studied were indeed fruits. That being said, I also took some vegetable crops classes, where this came up all the time, as many of our vegetables are indeed fruits. Confused yet? 

So, I dug up my old Veg Crops 101 notes (yes, I still have them), consulted with a few of my compatriots at CCE, and did some online research to make sure my instincts, my plant physiology classes, and Dr. Topoleski from Veg Crops didn’t steer me wrong.
Botanically, fruits are simply the product of a flower and contain seeds. Thus, you would think of apples, grapes, oranges, raspberries, peaches etc. What you may not think of are cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, snap beans or peas, peppers, etc. They are all the product of a flower and contain seeds, and thus, are botanically a fruit. 

Again, botanically speaking, vegetables are defined as any other part of the plant (outside the product of the flower/fruit) that we eat, which includes leaves (spinach, lettuce, etc.), stems (broccoli, asparagus, etc.), flowers (again broccoli, asparagus, etc.), seeds (corn, peas, etc.) and roots/root structures (potatoes, carrots, etc.).

Now, if we look at it from a culinary perspective, it is based on general flavor profiles and when it is eaten. Vegetables are considered generally more mild and savory and are eaten as part of a side dish or main course. Fruits are generally sweeter in flavor and are typically used in desserts and baked goods.

Of course, from the culinary perspective, there are always exceptions to the rules, as we think about things like candied yams, sweet potato pie (root veggies) or rhubarb pie (leaf veggie). All are vegetables that are served for dessert. Applesauce is an example of a fruit that is typically served as a side dish.

Hopefully this has cleared up that age-old question, at least from mud to maybe murky water. I am sure there will still be some debate, at least from the culinary angle, as the botanical definition is stone with no debate. And just to add a fun/controversial angle, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1893, declared the tomato a vegetable for use in U.S. custom regulations.