Tomato, tomahto. Potato, potahto. If you’re here to settle a produce aisle bet on matters of semantics where edible plant varieties are concerned—to answer the basic question, “What is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?”—you will be perhaps chagrined to learn that for many of those food pyramid superstars, the answer isn’t very simple.
There’s a lot of either/either, neither/neither involved with what makes a fruit a fruit and a vegetable a vegetable, and a fair amount of crossover between the two categories depending on whether you’re thinking like a botanist/biologist, a nutritionist, or a chef. The bigger question is, does it really matter all that much when categorically all of these things are pretty tasty (consumer dependent, obviously) and generally well-regarded in the health and nutrition scope? If this score must be settled, however, then I suppose the answer there is yes. So let’s try to delineate.
Related Reading: 9 Produce Subscriptions You Should Know About
By definition a fruit refers to those plant structures that are seed-bearing, and whose biological function is to continue the plant lineage by participation in plant reproduction. All the other plant parts—roots, stems, leaves, etc.—are vegetables. Simple, right? With that definition in mind, many of your favorite fruits are clearly that based on the obvious nature of their seeds. Orchard fruits such as apples and pears have several small seeds or “pips” contained within the core. Stone fruits such as peaches and plums have large pits that contain a couple of seeds within. Citrus fruits are a hot mess of internal seeds, unless they’ve been bred out of them, much like most common table grapes. (Are barren varieties still technically fruits then?) Commercially grown bananas are also genetically sterile, but the little black spots that are revealed in a slice show you their seed potential. Melons have huge seed cavities in their internal structure.
So that settles the great tomato debate then, right? Tomatoes are therefore definitely a fruit, since the seeds contained within are obvious. Tomatoes are a flowering plant whose flowers become tomatoes which become reproductive fruits which leave their seeds to become new tomatoes. Right. Except by that same definition, tomatoes aren’t the only crossover. So, too, are peppers, eggplants, olives, squash, avocados, cucumbers, beans, and some nuts. (Don’t let’s get started on nuts/legumes/kernels.) Imagine ordering a sensible fruit salad to accompany your omelet at brunch and getting a hodgepodge of berries (a biological category that excludes strawberries and raspberries, by the way), bananas, melons, peppers, and olives. If that arrived as a “fruit” salad, you’d rightfully walk out, even though it would be botanically accurate.
Sweet vs Savory
You can see the argument for function over form here. In culinary terms, those foods considered vegetables tend to have a more savory taste, while fruits are valued for their sweetness. But even the savory/sweet logic has flaws.
Tomatoes make an excellent salsa, ergo, vegetable. But then so do mangoes. And how does one classify rhubarb by those standards, a plant that looks like celery, has no appreciable sweetness, and yet whose primary culinary claim to fame is in dessert?
Or how to reckon with root vegetables, another plant category comprised of subcategories such as tubers and rhizomes, whose taste may not be entirely sweet but that often contain more actual dietary sugar than some fruits? Next time you see butternut squash in a “root vegetable” salad, object. Squashes are not roots. They are fruits, duh. Sweet potatoes are indeed sweet, and make a great pie, so are they too a fruit? Because they are not even technically a potato.
So can this score be settled by the realm of nutritional content then, because I’m starting to question everything I know. (Is my cat even a cat?) In nutrition, matters of caloric impact, dietary sugar, vitamin content, and fiber direct the conversation to places that start to align with common sense, and help you navigate those dietary guidelines. No, you can’t count a super-size order of french fries as your daily vegetable intake, even though botanically speaking you’re in the clear. That kind of thinking won’t prevent heart disease. But even in nutrition there is debate, and when terms like macro- and micro-nutrients enter the arena, herbs, otherwise semantically vegetables, get tossed out of the category, because you’re not getting nutritional credit for those couple sprigs of cilantro on your nachos, sorry. Unless you’re the kind of person who can eat several cups of basil in one sitting to count as leafy greens, in which case, good for you.
In Summary: Eat the Rainbow
In summary…there is no summary. Fruits and vegetables have so much grey area between them that the best advice is to just eat the rainbow already.
To help you get those vitamins and minerals, have a look at these six recipes which show how fruits and vegetables can play nicely together regardless of category.
Bright and zesty to put on fish, chicken, or just a nice plain tortilla chip. Try not to bother yourself over whether this is actually just a fruit salad with the addition of onions. Get our Peach, Tomato, and Sweet Onion Salsa recipe.
No need to wait for Thanksgiving when Brussels sprouts, cranberries, and pears get together to share the playing field. Everyone wins all year. Get our Roasted Pear Cranberry Brussels Sprouts recipe.
Did you know that beets are sometimes called “apples of the earth” in other languages? No wait, that’s potatoes. Did you know that beets are actually more similar to potatoes than sweet potatoes? Whatever. Without beets in your life how do you even hope cover the full rainbow? Get our Tangy Apple and Beet Salad recipe.
Fruits, veggies, and fish? Oh my. Does the American Heart Association know about this? Get our Summer Halibut Ceviche with Watermelon recipe.
Related Reading: The Very Best of Watermelon
So much interesting goodness going on here with snappy jicama, musky mango, and sassy grapefruit. Plus a little spice and cilantro to really drive it all home. Get our Spicy Jicama Grapefruit Mango Salad recipe.
Header image by Chowhound, using photo from Shutterstock.