Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that declares pizza in school lunches to count as a vegetable serving (so long as it has two measly tablespoons of tomato paste, only 1/4 of the recommended 1/2 cup to be a true serving of veggies). While this is asinine for many reasons, I’ve seen a few people joking that Congress is so dumb they don’t even know that the tomato is actually a fruit. So which is it, fruit or vegetable?
Botanically, the tomato is a fruit. Fruits are, with some exceptions such as strawberries, the engorged ovaries of plants and they contain seeds on the inside. Many foods that we think of as vegetables are actually fruits, including “cucurbits (e.g., squash, pumpkin, and cucumber), tomatoes, peas, beans, corn, eggplant, and sweet pepper.” In culinary terms these foods are mostly treated as vegetables due to their lower sugar content and the fact that they are rarely used in desserts. (Pumpkins obviously being the biggest exception to the dessert rule, although as we have learned here, you can make cake with tomato soup.) Botanical vegetables are the edible roots, stems, and leaves of plants, not the sex organs or seeds.
Interestingly, the tomato is also legally a vegetable. The Tariff Act of 1883 imposed a tax on vegetables imported into the U.S., but not on fruits. The Supreme Court, in Nix v. Hedder, ruled that the common definition of the tomato as a vegetable overruled the botanical definition, and therefore it would be taxed the same as any other vegetables, much to the dismay of tomato importers who thought they could skip out on the bill.
Also, while we’re on the topic of food definitions, no, pepper spray is not “a food product.” It contains capsaicin, the same chemical that makes peppers hot, but it’s not a food product any more than Pine-Sol is a tree. Scientific American has a chart that shows just how much hotter pepper spray is than any actual peppers; the police-grade stuff has about 1,000 times the heat of a jalapeÃ±o. There are also other ingredients, both solvents and propellants, that are certainly not food-related and can cause major health problems, even death. I think I’ll pass on adding any to my Thanksgiving dinner, but if y’all want to spice yours up a bit you can head over to Amazon and order your own! The customer reviews are priceless.