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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 being correct 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 returned more than half a dozen pages 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're both vegetables. In the context of recipes, they are decidedly the latter.

How can this be?

When someone insists a tomato is a fruit 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 true.

Vegetables don't exist. Sort of true.

“Vegetable” is a culinary term. It groups and identifies plant-based foods (the edible portions of plants) that are typically served in savoury dishes. In food science, identifying foods by how they are cooked or consumed is appropriate. It is no less valid than any other science 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 develops from the ovary of a flowering 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 botanically fruits, but are less sweet than most botanical fruits and have a savoury flavor component, so they are primarily 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 (e.g., quinoa) are botanical fruits. Most cooks are comfortable 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, remember that a tomato is 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 includes:

  • leaves (lettuce, many herbs)
  • stems (celery, fennel, rhubarb — that's right, rhubarb is not a botanical fruit)
  • 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, cauliflower and figs — take note, food pedants. Figs are not fruits).

As you may note from the above reference to rhubarb and figs, there are foods that culinary scientists classify as fruits that botanically are not. Note also that nutritionists have reasons to classify foods as fruits and vegetables to group them by nutritional value and their place in a healthy diet (potatoes are vegetables, yes, but most dieticians classify them as a starch. Many cooks do too because they hold the same place in a balanced meal as bread or rice).

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 example: 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. As an editor, this kind of grammatic elitism sticks in my craw — especially because the people writing these quizzes don't know the correct answers themselves.

So the next time someone objects when you correctly identify a tomato as a vegetable, tell them their vegetable soup is really flower, tuber, fruit, seed, and stem soup. If they call a strawberry a berry, tell them a tomato is a botanical berry, but a strawberry is not (but watermelons and chili peppers are). 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 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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