Posted on May 26, 2012 in Food & drink, Science & nature
Please settle an argument my sister and I are having: Is a tomato technically a fruit or a vegetable?
A “fruit” is considered to be the edible part of a plant containing the seeds, while a vegetable is defined as the edible non-fruit portions (roots, stems, leaves). Therefore, the seedy tomato is, indeed, a fruit. It joins other fruits — such as squash, bell pepper, okra, cucumber and eggplant — in the “I’m not a real veggie” clubhouse.
But while botanically, the tomato is a fruit, that’s not the end of the story. Way back in 1893, the US Supreme Court ruled the tomato a vegetable [Nix vs Hedden; 149 U.S. 304] to create a financially-friendly little loophole. Because of that ruling, American tomato farmers didn’t have to compete with foreign tomato growers… a hearty tax on all vegetable imports let them keep the market to themselves.
Still, the tomato is commonly considered a vegetable. Even researchers — such as the authors of a 2011 review article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine — consider them veggies, writing, ”Tomatoes are the most important non-starchy vegetable in the American diet.”
The tomato — or Lycopersicon lycopersicum – reportedly has its roots (ha) in South America, but it came to North America by way of Europe. Until the 1830s, the tomato was thought to be poisonous — probably because they were similar to their plant cousin, deadly nightshade — and many people were afraid to eat them.
Plant “breeders” have been creating new varieties of tomatoes for over a hundred years — trying to change and improve this plant. Researchers at Harvard have concluded that lycopene, a compound that gives tomatoes their bold red color, may help reduce the risk of some cancers. So, among other improvements, breeders are working to find out a way to increase the levels of lycopene in tomatoes.
On average, an American eats a hearty 88 pounds of tomatoes each year — both processed (such as in ketchup, spaghetti sauce and tomato juice) and fresh. Since your average 5-ounce tomato has only 35 calories and is a good source of vitamins A and C, it’s a healthy choice — “vegetable” or not. Check out tomatowellness.com for some other health benefits of the little guys.
This answer was adapted from an article Mrs FF wrote for ChefMom.com in January 2002, which is no longer online.
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