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Should tomatoes be classified as vegetables?

Many of us can readily tell the difference between most fruits and vegetables, but when it comes to the age-old topic of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, we’re stumped!

Look no further, for the answer is that tomatoes are both! Although both fruits and vegetables contribute toward our recommended 5-a-day intake, they vary significantly. However, these can depend on whether you’re talking to a botanist, who uses the botanical definition or a nutritionist or chef, who will most likely use the culinary definition.

Contents

The botanical classification: Tomatoes are fruits.

A botanist would utilize botanical categorization, which is based on physiological properties of the plant, such as structure, function, and organization. Therefore, botanically speaking, a ‘fruit’ is the seed-bearing product that grows from the ovary of a flowering plant or, in other words, a fruit is the plants’ way of spreading its’ seeds. A botanical fruit contains at least one seed and develops from the plant’s blossom. Tomatoes are considered as fruit under this definition since they contain seeds and grow from the tomato plant’s blossom.

A ‘vegetable’ in botanical terms on the other hand, does not have a set definition but is more of a general term encompassing all other edible aspects of the plant; the roots, stems and leaves. So putting our botany caps on, we would classify foods like apples, strawberries and peaches as fruits including tomatoes!

The Culinary Classification: Tomatoes are vegetables.

A nutritionist, chef or even your grandma, would use the culinary classification system, that defines fruits and vegetables in a slightly different manner, basing it on the way the plants are used and their flavour profiles. Culinary speaking, a ‘vegetable’ usually has a tougher texture, tastes blander and often requires cooking in dishes like stews, soups or stir-fries. Whereas, a ‘fruit’ has a soft texture, tends to be either sweet or tart and is often enjoyed raw or in desserts or jams.

Tomatoes may be juicy, sweet, and delicious when eaten fresh. Yet, we also prepare tomatoes in savoury dishes, which is why we usually classify tomatoes as vegetables.

botanical vs culinary tomato
Figure 1. Botanical vs culinary definition of tomatoes

Botanical vs Culinary Classification

So, why can we describe tomatoes in two ways when it confuses everyone? These definitions serve distinct functions. For example, the botanical classification is useful for a botanist when they want to discover the origins of tomatoes, help them identify different varieties of tomatoes, or understand how to grow and harvest various tomatoes.

The culinary definition may be more useful for the general public, nutritionists and chefs because the foods that are from the same botanical family, may not have the same nutritional compositions. Cantaloupe melons, watermelons, butternut squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins, for example, are all members of the same botanical family but have distinct nutritional profiles.

Avocado, olives, pumpkin, tomato, sweecorn, courgette, cucumber, green peas, chili, and aubergine are some botanical fruits that are culinarily regarded vegetables.

botanical fruit that are culinary vegetables
Figure 2.  Botanical fruit that are culinary vegetables

Tomatoes are part of your 5-a-day

For the 5-a-day recommendations, tomatoes are classified as a vegetable, which is the culinary definition, because that is how most people learn about fruit and vegetables. One adult portion of a tomato is a medium sized tomato or 7 cherry tomatoes, remember to eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables so you can reach your daily 5-a-day.

tomatoes as part of your 5-a-day
Figure 3. Portion size of tomatoes

Summary – Tomatoes are both fruits and vegetables!

To summarise, tomatoes are usually prepared in savoury dishes despite botanically being a fruit, which is why they are often described as a vegetable from a culinary perspective. But who cares when tomatoes are this delicious? We can all agree tomatoes are easy snacks, delicious in stews and are a healthy option in our diets, providing us with fibre, vitamins and minerals.

When do you believe is the greatest season for tomatoes? Do you want to know when is the greatest time to purchase fruits and vegetables? Check out our post on seasonal fruits and vegetables in Europe by month!

References

  1. JAT Pennington and RA Fisher (2009). Fruit and vegetable classification. S23-S31 in Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.
  2. Lexico website, Fruit. Accessed 13 Sep. 2019.
  3. NHS (2020). (2020). Rough guide – Fruit & vegetable portion size. Accessed on the 17th of February, 2020.

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