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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About The Author

Nancy J Price
Editor-in-chief

In addition to being the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Myria, Nancy J Price was one of the two original founders of SheKnows.com in 1999, helping turn it into one of the world's top lifestyle websites for women. While serving as the site’s executive editor for twelve years, Nancy also helped launch five national newsstand magazines. A history buff, she spent her first three post-SK years creating the Click Americana website, and writing the historical fiction time travel novel Dream of Time. Although she's a fourth-generation San Francisco Bay Area native who got her start interviewing and photographing bands in Northern California during the eighties, Nancy now lives in Arizona with her four kids and her fiancé, novelist Daniel Price.


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