Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables? Find Out the Truth!
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Posted by Eric Troy on 02 Mar 2013 23:34




You know what professional cook cares whether the tomato is a fruit? Because I'm not aware of one. We have a great misconception about fruits, but here is one thing that can set you free of the chains of grade school science pushers: There is more than one way to classify a vegetable and the way we classify them in the kitchen has nothing to do with botany. I guarantee you that a botanist is not going to lose any sleep over a cook placing a tomato, or anything else in the 'vegetable' category because it makes more sense for cooking.

We primates are very attracted to sweet fruits. But what is a fruit? To a botanist, a fruit is basically the ripened ovary of a seed-bearing plant. For us lay-people, if it contains seed, it's a fruit. But the relatively few sweet fruits we love should not be taken as representative of fruits in general! Tomatoes are fruits? So, what? So are cucumbers, squashes, eggplants, beans, peas, okra, avocado, peppers and many more things that we would think of as a vegetable in the kitchen. Technically, beans are the seeds of a fruit pod, but you get the point. Green beans may be a better example. In fact, tomatoes are actually sweeter than a lot of fruits.

Fruits are just one part of a plant to a botanist. The part that is developed from a flower and the accessories of the flower. In the kitchen, however, fruits are classified either as any edible part of the plant that has a sweet or otherwise pleasant taste, or are classified as a matter of convenience. Avocados and lemons, for instance, are used in all sorts of cooking even though neither is sweet and lemons are actually sour. Cranberries are classified as a fruit even though they are not very palatable on their own. Generally, it is the foods we pair them with or the way we eat them that classifies them, but this distinction is being blurred as fruits are finding their way into savory dishes more and more. Further proof that cooks don't really care whether something is a fruit or a vegetable, only if the flavors and textures are right. We may blur the distinctions, but we are still fairly consistent, from a gastronomical perspective, on the subject of fruit versus vegetable. You may cook your pork chops with apples, but
apples will remain a fruit.


tomatoes and peppers, both fruits

Which is a Fruit?
Trick Question!

tomatoes and peppers, both fruits

Which is a Fruit?
Trick Question!



Sometimes we consider things a fruit, in cooking, that is not technically a fruit at all. The rhubarb stalk (or petiole) is an example. In the United States, since it is fleshy and sweet, we think of it and cook with it as if it is a fruit.

Some things that we call nuts are technically fruits. In fact, few of what we think of as nuts are true nuts. Actually, there is some confusion as to what is a 'true nut' and what is a fruit. Most nuts are fruits. Fruits can have hard shells. Nuts like the almond, walnut, pecan, pistachio, and macadamia nut are the seeds of a drupe, which is an indehiscent fruit that is shed as a 1-seeded unit. Although they are formed from more than one carpel, only one seed develops and the rest abort. Chestnuts and hazelnuts are the seeds of hard-shelled fruits. All this is depending on what text you consult, since botanists cannot agree on it.


round zucchini squash

What the Heck is That?

round zucchini squash

What the Heck is That?



Peanuts are actually the seeds of a pea pod that grows underground. Technically a fruit. Sometimes botanists cannot agree on all this, so for the cook it really should not matter. The point is that there are a lot more things that are fruits than the tomato, but the tomato is the one vegetable that everybody wants to quibble about.

It's not hard to understand why the tomato as fruit or vegetable is such a favorite quibble. Of all the "vegetables" Americans eat more tomatoes than any other. Most people probably get more nutrition from tomatoes than from any other fruit or vegetable. The irony is that it would be more efficient to eat many other fruits and vegetables that have more vitamins and minerals.

The truth is that botanists are far more puzzled over these classifications then the cook needs to be. What is the difference between a squash and a melon? Hey, they aren't so different at all, in their function. But you know the difference and you know that a squash is not a fruit, no matter what botanists may think.


tree bearing yellow cashew fruits or cashew apples

What's a fruit but not a fruit, a nut but not a nut?
image by Abhishek Jacob via wikimedia

tree bearing yellow cashew fruits or cashew apples

What's a fruit but not a fruit, a nut but not a nut?
image by Abhishek Jacob via wikimedia


Did you know that the New Jersey state legislature had a hard time deciding whether to make the tomato the state fruit, given the fact that it is a vegetable? It just so happens also to be their biggest fresh crop, worth over $20 million a year. The tomato won out as the the official New Jersey state vegetable. Arkansas couldn't decide, so they made it both the state fruit and the state vegetable. Well, not just any tomato, but the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato. Ohio made the tomato its state fruit, as well.

However, U.S. customs holds the tomato as a vegetable, made official after the U.S Supreme Court ruled it thus in Nix v. Hedden. Imported vegetables are taxed under the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, but fruits are not. You can see how an importer might want to argue against having to pay duties on a vegetable that is botanically a fruit. But again, it only matters to botanists. The reason that the Supreme Court decided that the technical definition did not matter, is because the technical definition still did not resolve the problem of fruit versus vegetable in common speech. I'm sure that many would surmise the U.S tomato growers "changed" the tomato to a vegetable to protect themselves from competition, but I am not aware of the tomato ever being considered a fruit in the common use. Lots of things we call vegetables, as listed above, have seeds.

Despite this, some suppose that the Supreme Court decision is the only reason tomatoes are often considered vegetables. However, it is beside the point, as whether or not you call a tomato a fruit or a vegetable depends on your perspective. If you are viewing it from the perspective of a botanist, then you'd likely call it a fruit. If you were viewing it from the perspective of a cook, you'd likely call it a vegetable. To say that one is incorrect is simply untrue. A knife can be both a cooking tool and a weapon, after all. The way we define any item depends on the other items with which we group it, and the uses or characteristics this implies.


cashew fenni or fenny from India Big Boss brand

Cashew Feni from India
I'd like to try some of this!

cashew fenni or fenny from India Big Boss brand

Cashew Feni from India
I'd like to try some of this!



Notice the image above of the cashew apple? You may have heard that a cashew is not a nut but a fruit, because it grows from a fruit, that is sometimes called the cashew apple. This is where we separate the grade school science from the real deal. The cashew is a fruit that is a nut. The so-called apple is not proof that the cashew is not a nut but a fruit because that part, the yellow part in the image above, is not the fruit, per se. The nut, hanging off the bottom of it, which is encased in its own double-walled shell, is the actual fruit. The fleshy part it is attached to is a pseudo-fruit, and is actually the swollen peduncle of the fruit. A peduncle can be thought of as the stalk or receptacle that supports a flower or cluster of flowers, and then later, a fruit. The cashew stalk becomes swollen and fleshy, resembling a pear in shape and size. This kind of thing is called a hypocarp, in general. They can be pear-shaped, elongated, or round, depending on the variety. The skin is either yellow or red and is very delicate. The interior is fibrous and has an astringent taste, due to a lot of tannins, but is sweet when fully ripe, and very juicy.

The nut actually develops first and the peduncle swells rapidly during the last few weeks. These pseudo-fruits are sometimes eaten fresh in South America, but too many will irritate the throat. It is sold as a popular juice, after some of the more acrid and astringent compounds are removed. It can also be made into syrup, jams, or candy. The juice is used to distill Feni in India, a potent alcoholic drink (sometimes spelled fenny, it is also made from coconut).

As you can see, the botanical distinctions can be quite more complex than it seems at first glance. Why worry over whether a tomato is a fruit when something like a cashew apple exists? It makes plenty of sense to consider a cashew a nut and the thing above it a fruit, regardless of what the science holds. And until tomato smoothies and tomato ice cream becomes popular, I won't have any problem thinking of the tomato as a vegetable.

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