Tomatoes smell like a vegetable, taste like a vegetable and are commonly held to be a veggy. However, what we in the U.S. commonly think of as a vegetable is actually a fruit. The misconception can be traced back to political wheeling & dealing, and a Supreme Court judgement from the late 1800s.
Say What? Tomatoes Are A Fruit?
If you ask a cook or chef, they will tell you that a tomato is a vegetable. Culinary science defines fruits as “a sweet, fleshy food often used in desserts”. The tomato does not fit that description and as such, is considered to be a vegetable by their standards. Further separating tomatoes from fruits is that they are always served as part of the main course, opposed to being served as a dessert.
However, biologically speaking, the classification of tomatoes is another matter entirely. Biologists unanimously agree that the tomato is definitely a fruit. To be considered a fruit, they must be developed from the ovary in the base of the flower, and contain the seeds of the plant. The tomato fulfills these requirements. They aren’t sweet like most fruits because they have a much lower sugar content. They do contain sugar, just not enough to stimulate your taste buds like a grape or an orange.
So why do we think of them as a vegetable?
Way back in 1893, the United States Supreme Court gave its verdict, and decided that the tomato was a vegetable. But their verdict didn’t come without heaps of controversy.
At that time, fruits were not subject to import taxes. Tomato producers in other countries saw this as a fantastic opportunity to make some cash. As a result, the U.S. markets were flooded with cheap tomatoes from other countries. The consortium of local cultivators were understandably angry about the increased competition and loss of profits, so they filed a suit in court.
The case eventually found its way up to the Supreme Court. The verdict of the court went in the farmer’s favor as it declared that the tomato was now a vegetable. The result of the judgement was that the tomato was now subject to the costly import tariffs. U.S. Farmers were no doubt pleased by the ruling, and the tomato importers found doing business in the U.S too expensive. Tomatoes have remained classified as a vegetable ever since, at least, according to the U.S. government.
Bonus factoid: Peas, eggplants, pumpkins, capsicum, and cucumbers are also botanically fruits. Also, the tomato is the state ‘vegetable’ of New Jersey and the state ‘fruit’ of Ohio.