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Down with the tomato pedants

It's a vegetable, and I can prove it!

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Grammar peeve: down with the tomato pedants.

I've had it with people correcting me when I call a tomato a vegetable. This bit of plant-derived pedantry is not only irritating, it's inaccurate. And the fallacy is spreading. A recent web search for bell pepper recipes brought me to more than half a dozen recipe collections prefaced with a note that the bell pepper is really and truly a fruit, not a vegetable! How clever these bloggers are.

Or not. The bell pepper — and the tomato — are both fruits. And they are both vegetables. In the context of recipes, they are decidedly the latter.

How can this be?

When someone says a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, they are applying the correct botanical term. An appropriate response to this person is, "you're right — vegetables don't exist!" Botanically speaking, this is essentially true.

Vegetables do not exist. Sort of true.

Vegetable is a culinary term. It groups and identifies plant-based foods that are typically served in savoury dishes. In a food-based science, identifying foods by how they are cooked or consumed is appropriate. It is no less correct than another science when used in the right context. By culinary definition, a tomato is a vegetable because it is rarely served in sweet dishes or desserts. If you are talking about the tomato as a food item (say, on a page of recipes) the culinary term is the appropriate choice.

The confusion arises because in botany, vegetable has no meaning, but fruit is a valid term (with different meanings) in both sciences.

Botanically speaking, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that grows on flowering plants. A plant bears fruit to reproduce, so the fruit is only one component of the plant. Botanical fruits include things like apples, pears, lemons, strawberries, bananas, and peaches. These all happen to be classified as fruits in culinary terms too, so there is no conflict in terminology. Tomatoes are less sweet than most botanical fruits and have a savoury flavor component, so they have long been used as culinary vegetables.

Fruits aren't always fruits. Vegetables sometimes are.

Tomatoes are not alone in this fruit-as-vegetable classification: bell peppers, eggplants, avocados, cucumbers, corn, and even certain grains are fruits too. Most cooks are comfortable with referring to these as vegetables: it's unclear why tomatoes raise the hackles of misinformed grammar purists. Let's be clear though — those who claim they are just being appropriately literal when demanding you call a tomato a fruit don't have a leg to stand on. The argument for "correctly" calling a tomato a vegetable is just as strong and, where food and recipes are concerned, it dominates. But if you are studying for a botany exam, by all means, identify it as the fruit of the tomato plant.

You may be wondering by now, if vegetable is not a botanical term, how do botanists classify other vegetables that are not fruits? The vast range of plant parts we commonly consume include:

  • leaves (lettuce, many herbs)
  • stems (celery, fennel, rhubarb — that's right, it's a culinary fruit, but not a botanical one)
  • roots (carrots and parsnips)
  • tubers (potatoes, turnips)
  • seeds (peas and beans)
  • bulbs (onions or garlic — yes, bulbs, like the kind that produce tulips or irises. In fact, onions and garlic are the bulbs of specific lily plants)
  • flowers (broccoli or cauliflower — yep, they really are flowers. The name is not coincidental).

As you may note from the above reference to rhubarb, there are foods that food scientists classify as fruits that botanically are not. Note also that nutrition experts also have reasons to classify foods as fruits and vegetables to group them by nutritional value and their relative importance in a healthy diet.

Let's stop throwing tomatoes at each other.

Why am I so hung up on this? Because this culinary/botanical confusion is getting people all hung up about correctly identifying foods. Often, we're told we're wrong when in context, we are absolutely right! I've seen a ton of nutrition quizzes online that ask people to "correctly" identify foods as fruits or vegetables and most are riddled with fallacies. One, aimed at demonstrating that UK residents can't properly classify most plant-based foods is a perfect case in point: quiz-takers are expected to apply appropriate botanical terms in a quiz that includes the culinary term "vegetable" as an option. According to the answer key, potatoes are vegetables (culinary term) and, we're told, most Brits cannot properly classify tomatoes and eggplants as fruits (botanical term).

When a quiz aimed at demonstrating people's ignorance of basic fruit/vegetable classifications is mixing up the standards of classification, it's no wonder people are confused! The only outcome of these quizzes is to make people feel stupid when in most cases, people are getting it right (relative to the context of food). In the age of food insecurity and rampant malnutrition and obesity, educational articles about food are important. Quizzes like the one just cited only serve to spread misinformation and make people feel that basic food knowledge is beyond their reach.

So the next time someone objects when you correctly identify a tomato as a vegetable, tell them their cream of vegetable soup is really cream of flower, tuber, fruit, seeds, and stems. If they call a strawberry a berry, tell them a tomato is a botanical berry, but a strawberry is not. If they want to slavishly adhere to botanical terms, have at it! Then, hopefully, we can get back to using the convenience of culinary terms for classifying foods by how we eat them and give people one less manufactured reason to feel foolish.

There are many ways to classify things in our vast world:

Food/culinary science — the study of the process of food from the time it leaves the farm until it's consumed.
Botany — a branch of biology dealing with plant life.
Nutritional science — the study of the effects of food components on the metabolism, health, performance and disease resistance of human and animals.

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