Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable on A Dash of Science.com

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable?

One of the funniest debates people have is whether or not tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable. It doesn’t matter one way or another, but some of the dialogues I’ve witnessed were heated. One side says, “Of course it is a vegetable! We use it like a vegetable because it isn’t very sweet.” The other side comes back with, “It is a fruit! Botanically it is a fruit and that is the only criteria.” Both sides have valid points. Whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable depends on how the categories are defined. Currently, I think the botanical argument is more popular but this was not always the case.

Believe it or not, the tomato debate has been going on for over a century in the United States. In 1893 it even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Silly? Not really. There was money on the line, so neither side let the issue drop. Instead the question of whether or not tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable worked its way though the court system.

The key players in the case were the Nix family, tomato importers, and Edward Hedden, collector of the port of New York.  The law that cause these two parties to go to court was the Tariff Act of March 1883 which placed a tax on imported vegetables, but not fruits.

In 1886 the Nix’s ship came to New York carrying tomatoes from the West Indies. Mr Hedden, as port collector, said they owed money because of the tariff on vegetables. The Nix family thought tomatoes were fruit. They protested the fee but paid it anyway so they could unload their ship. Then they took Edward Hedden to court, to “recover back duties paid under protest”.

There was enough doubt over whether or not tomatoes are a fruit that the issue went to the Supreme Court. The official opinion of the court stated:

“The single question in this case is whether tomatoes, considered as provisions, are to be classed as ‘vegetables’ or as ‘fruit,’ within the meaning of the tariff act of 1883.

 

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables…which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The court ruled that tomatoes were vegetables because people use tomatoes like vegetables. The court acknowledge the botanical argument but brought up the point that other vegetables could be defined botanically as fruit. So because of the Tariff Act of 1883 and the Supreme Court case Nix v Hedden, tomatoes are legally vegetables.

 

Image: Naomi Kuwashima

Source: Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)

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