Written by Alisdair Webb
At some point in their lives, everyone has found out that, to their astonishment, a tomato is, in fact, a fruit. Many discover this seed of information while young and think nothing more of it - but let us be the exception. Let us ask the question: ‘Why is a tomato a fruit?’
There is the popular (and somewhat correct) theory that the tomato is a fruit as it contains seeds inside of itself and, like other fruits, if planted, would eventually grow into the verdure that created it. However, upon further reflection, this theory is far too broad. If this blanket rule applied to all, then a nut would also be classed as a fruit, as it too contains a seed inside of its shell, and can be planted to create the tree it came from. So, what’s the difference?
Visually, nuts and fruits are very different, and it is this difference, paired with our understanding that a fruit must contain seeds, that leads us to the definition of a fruit. A fruit is, botanically speaking, the ovary of a plant. It is the soft ‘flesh’ that holds the seeds of the plant. I’m sure at this stage it is becoming increasingly obvious why we simply say it ‘contains the seeds of a plant’, omitting the more graphic descriptions.
However, with this knowledge on board we can look at some other produce that is scientifically classed as a fruit. This includes the courgette, butternut squash, eggplant, peppers (including chillis), and beans (as the pod is considered a part of the bean fruit).
So, what does the term vegetable mean? Etymologically speaking, the word derives from the Latin ‘vegetabilis’ meaning ‘to give energy to’. In the 1300s this was adapted to the word ‘vegetable’ we now know, but connoting a different meaning; ‘living and growing’. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the more familiar comprehension of the word, ‘a plant that is cultivated for food’, became the accepted definition. Fundamentally, the noun ‘vegetable’ has no relevance, neither botanically nor scientifically. It’s deployed merely as a term for food that is grown, and thus can categorize any part of the plant, without boundaries.
To add further confusion is the berry family, of which the strawberry, blackberry and raspberry do not belong. A berry, botanically speaking, is defined as a fruit made from only the ovary of a single flower and is without a stone. The aforementioned fruits containing the family name are not classed as such, not because of their seeds on the outside, but instead because of the multiple ovaries they are made from. Essentially, without knowing the exact way the ‘berry’ is made, there is no way of knowing if it's classification is correct. All you will know is that it is, still, a fruit.
So there you have it. If in doubt, simply call all produce a vegetable, you can never be scientifically wrong. If you’re feeling a bit more confident, then identifying a fruit should now be a bit easier with this quick and helpful guide. However, unless you're certain that a food is a berry, it is best to stay quiet; you don’t want to be slipping on your own banana peel!