Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Turns out, the line between fruits and vegetables is quite blurry. Where does the beloved tomato fall? Even the Supreme Court has weighed in on the debate.

The tomato is beloved coast to coast. In New Jersey, it’s the official state vegetable. Tennessee crowned it the official state fruit. And Arkansas, making things clear as mud, calls the local pink tomato the official state vegetable and fruit.

Wait. Is tomato a fruit or vegetable? Turns out, it’s complicated.

The Case for Fruit

Scientifically, a fruit is defined as a seed-bearing structure that forms from the flower of a plant. Tomatoes meet both criteria—but so do plenty of other so-called vegetables, including corn, pumpkins and winter squash, zucchini, peppers and eggplant, to name a few.

Plus, tomatoes have lots of fruit-like characteristics: they’re often sweet, bursting with juice and they taste really good with cheese (OK, that last one is definitely a personal preference). Do you know the best type of tomato for your recipe?

On the whole, you can’t deny that tomatoes are definitely fruits…but, it’s complicated!

The Case for Vegetable

Technically speaking, “vegetable” is not a botanical category—vegetables can be leaves (kale, spinach), stalks (rhubarb, celery) or roots (potatoes, turnips). So, classifying the tomato as a vegetable isn’t possible from that angle. (Appreciate the beauty of vegetables with our recipes for eating the rainbow.)

However, our everyday language sorts fruits and vegetables in a fairly straightforward manner: fruits are generally sweet and enjoyed raw or, if cooked, tend to be used in desserts. Vegetables tend to be eaten raw in salads, or cooked into savory dishes, like stews or soups. You’re more likely to eat tomatoes with mozzarella or on top of a burger than in an ice cream sundae.

Using this logic, tomatoes are definitely vegetables.

The Supreme Court Says…

Legally speaking, the fruit-or-vegetable debate ended in 1893, when the Supreme Court weighed in. What brought this humble matter to their attention? A tax debate. After Congress passed a tariff on vegetables, an importer attempted to bring in tomatoes as “fruit,” thereby avoiding the extra 10% tax. New York State refused to accept the importer’s logic, and the case of Nix v. Hedden went all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices voted unanimously that tomatoes are eaten as vegetables and therefore are vegetables.

Nevertheless, we’re still talking about it over 100 years later. You could even argue tomatoes are a fruit and a vegetable!

Find Ways to Enjoy This Vegetable All Summer Long
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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes articles and novels from her home in Milwaukee. She's an avid cook, reader, flâneur, and noir fanatic. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, will be published in June 2019 by William Morrow.