Is Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Here are the botanical, nutritional, and legal answers to a pressing question.

Close up shot of cherry tomatoes

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Let's settle this debate once and for all: the tomato is both a fruit and a vegetable. There's enough evidence from both sides to support this stance and put the dispute to an end. Of course, the specific answer will depend on whom you ask, and scientists, culinary experts, and the U.S. Supreme Court all have strong opinions on the matter.

The tomato, which is an edible part of the Solanum lycopersicum plant, shares the qualities of both fruits and vegetables. It is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and potassium; it has low fat content; and it can be consumed cooked or raw. Tomatoes are also full of antioxidants, and are a great source of lycopene, a naturally occurring compound which gives the tomato its red coloring and may be linked to reducing certain disease risks.

Differences Between Fruits and Vegetables

The difference between fruits and vegetables starts at the developmental stage. Fruits, according to the simplest scientific definition, grow from the flowering part of a plant. Also known as the ovary, the fruit starts its journey once the flower has bloomed and fallen from the plant. Once the growth has fully matured and ripened, it's known as a fruit because it contains seeds and its sweet, sometimes sour, fleshy contents are edible. Due in part to their natural sweetness, fruits are higher in sugar content.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are defined as any other part of a plant that can be consumed, such as the leafy stalks of kale and collard greens, heads of broccoli and cauliflower, and the edible tubers of root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes.

From a culinary standpoint, the lines are less clearly defined. As Insider reports, "The confusion arises because 'vegetable' isn't a botanical classification so much as it is a culinary one." In the kitchen, vegetables and fruits are primarily divided based upon taste. Fruits are sweet, and (most) vegetables are savory; and so, in general, the two are used differently as ingredients when it comes to the preparation and enhancement of certain dishes.

Tomato Is a Fruit

From the botanical perspective, the humble tomato is indeed a fruit. It checks all of the appropriate boxes of fruit classification. A fruit develops from the ovary which is the female organ of the plant. Inside the ovary, small ovules grow into seeds which eventually become the fruit. On the tomato plant, once the yellow flowers are produced, the tomato will appear and bear a seed-filled center. Pumpkins, peppers, eggplant, okra, peas, avocado, and string beans undergo a similar process, and are also part of the age-old fruit-or-vegetable debate.

"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad."

- Miles Kington, British journalist

Tomato Is a Vegetable

While there may be some camps still arguing the merit of a tomato as a fruit, the U.S. government has clearly taken a side and legally declared the tomato a vegetable in the 1893 U.S. Supreme Court case of Nix v. Hedden. The case was brought by John Nix, who filed a suit in response to President Chester A. Arthur's Tariff Act of 1883, which taxed imported vegetables but not fruit. Nix, the owner of a large produce distribution company, argued that the tomato was a fruit and should be taxed at a lesser value. However, the Court ruled that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable and was thus subject to the import tax.

The government's position has been further clarified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which clearly includes the tomato as a vegetable in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It's categorized as a "red and orange vegetable," as is 100% tomato juice.

Nutritionally speaking, tomato fits the bill as a vegetable for its savory flavor profile and low fructose content. Once raw tomatoes are added to canned soups, sauces, or fruit juices, however, the sugar levels in the products increase dramatically. Tomatoes are acidic, but a pinch of white sugar or baking soda can temper the acidity in a tomato sauce, giving it a richer flavor.

No matter how you use it, the tomato is a versatile vegetable that tastes great grilled, stewed, or just fresh from the garden in a salad or a sandwich. Just be sure to eat it in season, and you'll never be disappointed. And if you can't, learn how to preserve it for a taste of summer all year round.

View Article Sources
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  3. "Fruit Quality — How Do Fruit Get Their Flavor?" Penn State Extension.

  4. "U.S. Reports: Nix V. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)." The Library of Congress.

  5. "Make Every Bite Count With the Dietary Guidelines." Dietary Guidelines, 2020.