What is the difference between fruit and vegetable – and why is tomato considered a fruit?

What is the difference between fruits and vegetables? At first glance, the answer to this question may seem quite simple. Obviously, really. If it’s sweet and juicy like a strawberry, it must be a fruit. And if it’s juicy and stringy like a carrot, it must be a vegetable. But is that how these two food groups are officially defined? Or are there other aspects to consider?

You may have heard that some people consider the tomato a fruit. But tomato can sometimes be classified as a fruit and sometimes as a vegetable. This is because the exact definitions will vary if you are a gardener or a chef, as explained by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), indicates Live Science.

Moreover, your language and country of origin can also affect how you perceive this issue. Here, we will explain what constitutes a fruit and what is considered a vegetable according to different definitions. You might be surprised!

The difference between fruits and vegetables

Most people will look at the problem from a culinary point of view. In this case, fruits and vegetables are separated according to their taste and aroma. According to this definition, fruits are sweet or sour, while vegetables are more moderate and savory. These two food groups will also have different culinary uses. Fruits will predominantly be added to desserts, smoothies or juices, while vegetables will be part of a hearty side dish or main course.

However, what fruits and vegetables represent will look completely different to a botanist. According to the book Postharvest Physiology and Biochemistry of Fruits and Vegetables, fruits are seed-bearing structures that develop from the ovary of a flowering plant. This means that “vegetables” such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, corn kernels, and bean and pea pods are actually fruits.

While a vegetable is any edible part of a plant that does not happen to be a fruit, such as leaves (spinach, lettuce, cabbage), roots (carrots, beets, turnips), stems (asparagus), tubers ( potatoes), bulbs (onions) and flowers (cauliflower and broccoli).

A problem of perception

The way of perception associated with the image of fruits and vegetables can also depend on where you come from and the language you speak. In 2011, the journal Public Health Nutrition published a survey that revealed the extent of these cultural differences. According to their findings, rice was considered a vegetable by 20% of US adult respondents.

Compared to English speakers, Spanish speakers were more likely to call rice a vegetable. On the other hand, Chinese speakers were less likely to do so. Beans, which are often lumped into the vegetable category, have divided opinion. Compared to Spanish speakers, English speakers were more likely to label them as vegetables.

The debate over the difference between fruits and vegetables can sometimes reach such a fever pitch that the law has to intervene. In the 1893 Nix case, the United States Supreme Court. v. Hedden, the court unanimously held that an imported tomato should be taxed as a vegetable rather than a (less taxed) fruit as described in the Mercer Law Review. The court recognized that a tomato is a botanical fruit, but followed what they called the “ordinary” definitions of fruits and vegetables, those used in the kitchen.

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