Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tomatoes are vegetables

Tomatoes are Vegetables.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You heard from your textbook/biology teacher/girlfriend/dad/wherever that tomatoes are fruits because they have seeds. I'm going to get to that in a moment. First, I need to talk about the fact that the great Tomato Debate is, at it's core, a linguistic one. That is to say, the argument really boils down to definitions; in this case, the definition for "fruit" and the definition for "vegetable" (I think we can all agree on what we would define as a tomato).

Now, about tomatoes being fruits because they are seed-bearing ovum. If you were thinking this when you started reading this article, you were right. Tomatoes are fruits, because a fruit is "the developed ovary of a seed plant with its contents and accessory parts..."1. You'll find a pretty similar definition in most dictionaries. So, by the dictionary definition, tomatoes are fruits.

However, tomatoes are also vegetables. Look up "vegetable" in most dictionaries, and you'll find a definition along the lines of any plant or part of a plant which is harvested for food by humans. Random House defines it as " any plant whose fruit, seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves, or flower parts are used as food..."2 So, according to the dictionary definition, Tomatoes are vegetables along with all other edible fruits and things like rice, peanuts, sugar, and soy. Not mushrooms, though.

So, tomatoes are both fruits and vegetables, right? Well, kind of. You see, both the definitions I gave you just now are sort of general definitions for "fruit" and "vegetable." Words can, however, have a general definition but also a completely different definition, for use in special situations. For instance, the word "virus" refers to (in general) a type of non-living microbe which uses the cells of living things to reproduce. However, in the area of computer science, "virus" takes on a completely different definition, and no longer refers to a microbe or a physical thing at all, but rather digital information which is designed to make a computer run instructions that would cause unwanted damage. This is a special-case definition of "virus."

And, I propose that when someone asks "are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable?," they're asking for a special-case definition of both those words. First, because the question implies that a tomato is one or the other, general definitions which overlap as much as "fruit" and "vegetable" do probably aren't the right choice. Second, because the categories of "fruit" and "vegetable" conjure up images of the classic Food Pyramid, and the boxes which appear on them. Often, when someone asks about tomatoes being a fruit or a vegetable, they're asking which Food Group it belongs in. And the Food Groups "fruit" and "vegetable" have different criteria than the general definitions of "fruit and vegetable." If they didn't, then every food we ate that comes from a plant would be in the Vegetable Group, and (needless to say) that is not how the Food Pyramid works.

So, which Food Group do tomatoes fit into? Well, they are savory and not sweet, they contain low amounts of fructose, and they are usually eaten as part of dinner rather than desert. For these reasons, I would argue that they are in the Vegetable Group. Furthermore, the USDA (the department responsible for creating the Food Pyramid) list tomatoes on their Vegetable page but not on their Fruit page. I'm having trouble finding an official list of foods that belong in each group for the "classic" Food Pyramid (the one without stairs running up the side), but a picture of said pyramid on the USDA's website contains something that looks distinctly like a tomato in the vegetable section.

So, for these reasons, I believe that the tomato falls squarely in the Vegetable Group of the Food Pyramid, and not the Fruit Group. If you choose to accept Food Groups as the appropriate method for which to determine if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable (which is the method I would prescribe), then it's a vegetable and not a fruit. If you choose to use the general definitions to decide, then it is both a fruit and a vegetable. QED: tomatoes are vegetables, no matter how you look at them. They are, however, only sometimes fruits. Here's a little chart to summarize things:

1: fruit. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: January 21, 2009).

2: vegetable. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: January 21, 2009).

1 comment:

  1. I was checking my dog eared pages in "The Know It All" and wanted to tell you about raspberries--they aren't berries! They, as well as strawberries and blackberries are "aggregate fruits," while true berries include bananas, oranges, and pumpkins. lol