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FAQ: Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable?

We’ve all been in this dispute before. A friend is marveling at this thing we call a tomato, which we toss, stew, dice, juice, slice and mince in kitchens far and wide. But where does it come from- they wonder- how did it get here, and, now that we’re all on a first name basis with it, what family does it belong to? Despairingly, we never seem to all come to the same conclusion. Beloved by many people, tomatoes have been called by many names. Let’s just hope all the controversy makes our sauce a little spicier.

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FAQ: Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable?

A: Scientifically, tomatoes are a fruit. But for political and culinary purposes, they’re considered a vegetable.

For those of us who like to solve riddles by taking them apart piece by piece, we can cut open a tomato and see that it has seeds inside. This makes it a fruit, botanically speaking. Plants furnish their seeds with layers of seed coat, hard shell, fluff and flesh. Each seed’s package has evolved to nourish and protect the seed as it develops, travels and grows. While the coconut seed evolved to float across water onto distant beaches, the wheat seed evolved to fly on the wind, and the seeds of the tomato, the raspberry, the orange and others evolved to be partially digested by birds and mammals. What makes the tomato so appealing for us mammals to eat is also the plant’s mechanism for survival.  Everything we eat with a seed enclosed is scientifically the fruit of the plant. The plant parts we eat that don’t have seeds in them, like celery stalks, lettuce leaves, yam roots and sprout shoots, are all vegetal parts of the plant. (With the exception of flower parts, like zucchini petals and broccoli buds, which would eventually ripen into fruit!)

For those of us who like to get to the root of a squabble by referencing history and politics, we can state the fact that the US Supreme Court has ruled the tomato a vegetable. In May of 1883, the debate proved worthy of legal action when a New York fruit importer refused to pay vegetable taxes on his tomatoes. Fruits didn’t require any import taxes, but the port authority argued that the tomatoes were a vegetable. The court called upon the best dictionaries of the day, and the customs of fine dining, which dictated that tomatoes are “usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats … and not, like fruits generally, as dessert,” before ruling that, for every day purposes, the tomato is considered a vegetable. Since then, other states have weighed in on the debate by officially claiming the tomato as either their state vegetable or fruit, or both.

For those of us that live by the rules of the flavor palette, we can experience the molecules in a tomato as savory. When compared with other fruits on the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), tomatoes taste more vegetal. They contain more sugars and acidity than most true vegetables, but the sweet and sour taste is matched by bitterness in the skin and seeds. Also, the amount of glutamates found in tomato flesh make it one of the few plant-based foods that have an umami flavor. Because of all these molecules at play, we’d rather use sweeter fruits for dessert dishes. But for some of us, nothing can stop us from taking a big bite out of a whole tomato and eating it like an apple.

No matter which way we choose to argue, people passionate about tomatoes can all agree that cooking just wouldn’t be the same without them. You can keep cooking all month long with 25% off any tomatoes at Stockbox.

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