The Q&A Archives: Classification of Fruits & Vegetables

Question: Could you please tell me the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. I have received a lot of conflicting information such as, I was told that a cucumber and a tomato are actually a fruit. I appreciate your assistance.

Answer: According to Marvin Pritts, Professor at Cornell University, "plants do two things - they grow and they have sex. Any part that relates to growing is "vegetative" and any part that relates to sex and babies is "reproductive." This is easy for scientists to understand. So, any plant
part having to do with making babies is a fruit, and any plant part having to do with growing is a vegetable.

The difficulty arose hundreds of years ago when creative non-scientific people started to use the "reproductive" parts much like they used the "vegetative" parts. For example, they threw a tomato (a reproductive part because it contains seeds) in with lettuce (a vegetable) and refered to the whole salad as a bunch of vegetables. Before too long, everyone in the family was referring to everything in the salad as a vegetable - even though the scientists recognized that the tomato was really a fruit. After years of protestation, the scientists gave up. They said, "If you insist on calling things you put in salads and things you cook for dinner vegetables, even though they contain seeds and are reproductive plant parts, fine with us. Just don't expect us to call them vegetables 'cause we know better."

Then it came time to set up agricultural research universities, and administrators had to decide which department worked on which crops. Turns out that they decided to have three basic departments. One worked on grains (e.g. corn, wheat, etc.), another worked on fruits (apples, strawberries, grapes, etc.) and another worked on vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.). Then they had to decide where to assign the annual crops producing "fruits" such as tomatoes, eggplants and peas. Since tomato, eggplant and peas are grown in similar ways to lettuce, cabbage and cauliflower, they were dumped into the vegetable department. In terms of cultivation, a tomato is more similar to a cauliflower than an apple tree. So, the unscientific distinction between fruits and vegetables was further reinforced - for practical purposes (similar uses and growing procedures).

Now, the public calls most non-grain crops that are planted from seed and harvested in the same year "vegetables" and crops that live for several years and are propagated from cuttings as "fruits." Makes sense because these "vegetables" are usually cooked for dinner or are made into a salad, regardless of what plant part they come from. And the "fruits" are usually eaten fresh as desserts.

But there are still scientists around who continue to point out that certain vegetables (e.g. tomatoes) contain seeds and are associated with plant sex and babies, so are technically fruits. But few people listen to them, and not too many people care!"

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