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Ethan Trex
Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables?
by Ethan Trex - June 9, 2010 - 11:05 AM


Here’s a scene you’ll probably see this summer: you’ll be at a barbecue or picnic, enjoying nice, fresh in-season tomatoes, and you might make an offhand comment about tomatoes being your favorite vegetable. Almost immediately, some know-it-all will pipe up with, “Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables!”

No one would blame you if you told your pedantic guest, “Wow! Thanks for correcting me! It’s clear now why everyone enjoys your company so much!” That response is a bit aggressive, though, so try this one instead: “Actually, according to the Supreme Court, tomatoes are vegetables. I’m just trying to keep this picnic nice and legal.”

Yes, the Supreme Court has weighed in on the “Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?” debate, and the justices came to a firm conclusion: tomatoes are veggies. Let’s take a look at how this momentous decision came to pass.

The Trouble with Tariffs

Like a lot of American’ history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff. In March 1883, Congress passed a new tariff act that put a 10-percent import duty on any whole vegetables brought into the country. The new tariff didn’t really cause any hullabaloo until the produce-importing Nix family tried to bring a load of tomatoes from the West Indies into New York. The collector of the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, charged the Nixes the 10-percent duty on their tasty wares despite their angry protests that tomatoes were fruits, not vegetables. Hedden refused to classify the offending tomatoes as fruit, so the Nixes sued him to recover their tariff duties.

Ripening Justice

Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case. Tomatoes fit the bill of being the fleshy ripened ovaries of a plant, which makes them fruits. Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut, though. The Nixes’ efforts to be reimbursed for the tariff duties kicked off a six-year legal battle that ended with arguments before the Supreme Court in 1893. The Nix family’s lawyer read the Justices the definitions for “fruit,” “vegetable,” and “tomato” from various dictionaries and even called in expert testimony from fellow produce merchants on whether the grocers thought tomatoes were fruits or vegetables.

The defense used many of the same tactics in its efforts to convince the justices that tomatoes were indeed vegetables. The defense counsel went to the dictionary for definitions for “squash,” “pepper,” “eggplant,” and “cucumber.” The defense’s argument was pretty simple: sure, tomatoes were biologically a fruit, but for the purposes of trade and commerce—that is, the things covered by the Tariff Act of 1883—tomatoes were really vegetables.

The Court Rules

When faced with this information, the Supreme Court unanimously found that tomatoes were vegetables. Justice Horace Gray admitted in his decision that while tomatoes were technically the fruit of a vine, they were always served “at dinner in, with, or after the soup fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” In other words, unless people wanted to start capping a meal with tomato ice cream, tomatoes were for all intents and purposes vegetables and could be taxed as such. The Nix family wasn’t getting its import duties back.

Sound strange? Here’s something that’s even weirder: the Supreme Court actually had a precedent for a very similar issue. In his decision Justice Gray referenced a previous Supreme Court case, Robertson v. Salomon, in which Justice Joseph P. Bradley had written the opinion that beans were vegetables rather than seeds. In that 1892 decision, Bradley rebuffed the notion that beans were seeds:

“We do not see why they should be classified as seeds, any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term ‘vegetables.’ As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put.”

Tomatoes-As-Veggies Lives On

At first glance, the Nix v. Hedden decision sounds like a Gilded Age curiosity, but the whole “tomatoes are a vegetable” notion still pops up from time to time. In 1981 the Reagan administration was searching for ways to cut school lunch costs while still providing students with the full nutritious lunch consisting of milk, meat, bread, and two servings of vegetables. USDA bureaucrats hit on the idea of counting ketchup as one of the servings of vegetables under the logic that ketchup was cheap and kid-friendly.

As you might imagine, parents and the media weren’t so keen on the idea of counting a smear of ketchup on a burger as eating your vegetables. The proposition enraged parents and nutritionists alike, and the administration quickly scrapped the plan.

In 2005, Nix v. Hedden came back into the news in New Jersey. The Garden State is nationally known for its delicious tomatoes, and lobbyists have used the Supreme Court’s vegetable ruling in their efforts to get the tomato named the state vegetable. Arkansas had earlier decided to play both sides of the debate in 1987 when it passed a single bill declaring the South Arkansas Pink Vine Ripe Tomato both the official state fruit and the official state vegetable. Tennessee and Ohio, on the other hand, have pleased botanists by making the tomato their official state fruits.

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Comments (27)
  1. Now I want tomatoes. Thanks. :)

  2. Horticulturist here! I’m banging my head on the wall now. :P

    I had no idea there was a court case on this. “Vegetable” is a botanically meaningless term anyway. Just about everything is a fruit, root, leaf or stem. Zucchini? Fruit. Potato? Steam tissue. Onion? Leaf tissue.

    But I try really hard not to be one of “those people” at cookouts.

    (It’s really hard.)

  3. This brings up the old saying:

    Knowledge is is knowing that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is not putting them in a pie.

  4. They are actually berries :)

  5. Is there no end to Judicial Activism?

  6. Hey b, what about pizza pie?

  7. I have a botanical background, so I’m firmly in the tomato=fruit camp, though, like Metricula, I try my best not to be one of “those” people. On a tangentially-related and confusing note, in 2007 Oklahoma declared watermelon to be the state vegetable.

  8. I see no problem with calling ketchup a vegetable for the sake of nutrition. However, it would actually have to be a similar serving size, say 4 ounces*, which I doubt many people actually do.

    * That is about 14 packets.

  9. Who cares, let’s eat!

  10. Bob the Tomato is one of the stars of VeggieTales, that should make it case closed.

    Of course so are Madame Blueberry and Pa Grape, get ready for that court case!

  11. Context matters. Botanically it is a fruit; culinary it is a vegetable. There is no such thing as a vegetable in botanics.

    Really, the problem is the reuse of the word “fruit” in the kitchen.

  12. Yes, yes, I am one of those people but I try to be nice about it. I mean it’s not like the government would ever ignore what’s actually happening because the opposite benefits them. Or ever back stupid ideas for that matter (3/5 *cough*promise).

    Of course I did have a very mild argument with my nutritionist. I was on a diet where I would get points for eating things (or not) in various categories. Every day I would max out vegetables but get no credit in fruits because I prefer squash, tomotos, peas etc to apples, oranges and pears. They refused to budge though even though they couldn’t provide a list of nutritional qualifications to designate a fruit.

    Nevermind, my little tomato plant. I know when I see your pretty yellow blossoms that you are indeed a fruit bearing bush.

    And of course I would have no problems with a legal designation of “Fruit but taxed as a vegetable for culinary reasons”.

  13. In a refrigerator that has a drawer for veggies and one for fruit (high humidity for one and low for the other), which drawer should you put tomatoes in?

  14. @ Anomdebus –
    I believe the issue here is that increasing the amount of ketchup (and therefore “vegetable”) also increases the amount of sugar and/or HFCS, vinegar, salt and (potentially) preservatives in one’s diet as well. The high amount of these less than desirable substances tends to offset the health benefits, so calling it a vegetable is a little….misleading.

  15. Love your articles Ethan, thanks!

  16. Biolobri,
    You can bathe veggies in lots of salt and butter too (amongst other things), but that doesn’t make them not veggies. I am not aware of vinegar being a problem unless you are sensitive to acidic food.

  17. @Witty Nickname:
    I like your logic. I think that Bob the Tomato being a member of Veggie Tales absolutely answers this age-old question. To add to your statement, though, I think there is a clear distinction between the veggies and the fruits of Veggie Tales. I mean, Bob did give Larry’s hairbrush to the Peach… :-)

  18. I’ve always thought of tomatoes as vegetables. I eat them with other vegetables and I don’t eat them with other fruit,mostly because mixing the tastes would be weird.

  19. Tomatoes are fruit because they have an ovary as do cucumbers and pumpkins and a vegetable is classified as the edible root or the stem or the leaves of a plant for example lettuce because it has leaves.

  20. Ironically, I’m reading this while drinking a can of V8 “vegetable” juice :)

  21. Aren’t beans a musical fruit? Sorry, I had to. :)

  22. tomato ice cream

    If someone can think of it, you can find it on the Internet.

  23. Hilarious that we all paid for a bunch of judges and court proceedings to determine all of this. Glad to know that all that tax money isn’t going to something fruitless.

  24. The problem is that fruits and vegetables are not mutually exclusive terms. For practicality, you classify the sweet plants as fruit and the not-so-sweet plants as vegetables just so you can get kids to eat one or the other.

    The question of ketchup as a vegetable was to save the school lunch program a lot of money by juggling the nutrition guidelines.


  25. 2matoes.

  26. Incidentally, Chef Gene Gonzalez of the Philippines has a fabulous recipe for chocolate TOMATO ice cream. (Fruit! :))

  27. If you differentiate between fruit, and the other classes mentioned above – then a tomato is a fruit. This said, I would’ve just chalked it up to American legal folk doing really dumb things. Again.


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