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The Great Debate: Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

The Great Debate: Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?


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We’re writing this so that all of you can finally shut up about whether tomatoes are classified as fruits or veggies. You’re all correct — sort of. Now find another pointless topic for debate, like how to pronounce the word "mature" or whether the end of the toilet paper should hang behind or in front of the roll.

The reason for the confusion is that there are two definitions of a fruit: the scientific definition and the culinary definition. Scientists decided that a fruit is the edible reproductive body of a seed plant and develops from the ovary at the base of a flower. With this definition, a tomato is a fruit. Specifically, tomatoes are botanically classified as berries since they are simple fruits having seeds and pulp produced from a single ovary. Avocados, bananas, pumpkins, watermelons, and persimmons join tomato in the berry category.

Let’s follow the usual progression of this argument from here:
Person A: See! I told you it’s a fruit since it has seeds!
Person B: Yeah? Well, how about pineapple, huh? That doesn’t have seeds. Is it a vegetable then? And cucumbers have seeds! Are you trying to say those are fruits, too?

Here’s the weird thing about pineapple: It would have seeds, but that requires pollination, and pollination is prevented in commercially grown pineapples because it negatively affects the quality of the fruit. In fact, hummingbirds are prohibited in Hawaii because of this. Since it’s still technically a seed-producing plant, pineapple is botanically considered a fruit.

And yes, cucumbers would be considered a fruit, scientifically speaking — as would squash, pumpkin, peas, beans, corn, eggplant, sweet peppers, and even cereal grains like wheat and rice. Even some nuts are botanically classified as fruits.

Cooks decided they didn’t give a damn what scientists said and thought it made a lot more sense to base the classification on the flavor of the produce and whether it’s typically used for a meal or for dessert. If it’s sweet and is used in foods like pies, it’s a fruit. If it’s more on the savory side and is typically used as part of a non-dessert meal (i.e., breakfast, lunch, or dinner) it’s considered a vegetable. Under this rule, tomato is a vegetable. Rhubarb complicates matters even further: It’s botanically classified as a vegetable, but it’s often considered a fruit in the culinary world because of its sweetness and its use in desserts like rhubarb pie.

This debate is so ancient and so shockingly important to people that it even had its own Supreme Court case in 1893. In Nix v. Hedden, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that customs regulations should classify tomato as a vegetable instead of a fruit. At the time, imported vegetables had been taxed under the Tariff Act of 1883, but imported fruits had not. This case concluded that imported tomatoes should be taxed as well since everyone was calling them vegetables anyway.

In conclusion, potayto, potahto; tomayto, tomahto. Call it what you want, fruit or vegetable. Just don’t let the toilet paper hang behind the roll.

— Melissa Valliant, HellaWella

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Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

Related Content

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “In the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “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,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


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