Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? It depends on who you believe: botanists or the US Supreme Court.

Here’s the scoop, so you can catch up.

Tomatoes at Oakland Farmer's Market - photo by Nancy J Price

by Nancy J Price

Tomato, tahmato

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 US 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’s tale

The tomato — or Lycopersicon lycopersicum – reportedly has its roots in South America, but it came to North America by way of Europe. Until the 1830s, the tomato was actually 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.

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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.


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