Monday, July 23, 2012

Fruits vs Vegetables

The simple tomato.  Is it a fruit or a vegetable?
We all know we are supposed to eat our fruits and vegetables, and kids prefer fruits to vegetables by a wide margin.  But, have you ever stopped to think about what a fruit and/or vegetable really is?  I'm pretty sure an apple is a fruit and broccoli is a vegetable.  Many of you probably know that scientifically the tomato is a fruit, even though many people consider it a vegetable.  But did you know that the supreme court ruled in the Nix vs Hedden case that the tomato should legally be considered a vegetable.  You may even have heard of the government counting a packet of ketchup as a serving of vegetables in school lunches.   So what is the deal here?  Science says the tomato is a fruit, but the government seems to have no trouble calling it a vegetable.  How can this be??  We are here to set the record straight for all of you.

A squash flower from our garden.
A squash will grow here - a good indication that it is a fruit
First lets talk about what a fruit actually is.  By botanical definition it is the ovaries of a plant.  What this means is that it comes from the flower and carries the seeds of the plant.  In a symbiotic relationship, the plant makes a good tasting tissue around the seed which animals eat and help the plant to spread its seed.  This means that squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, peas, beans, corn, wheat grains and tomatoes, botanically-speaking, are fruits.  In culinary terms though, most of these would be considered vegetables.  
Even nuts are dry, single seeded fruits.  Well, ok, some nuts are two seeded, however, and in botanical terms really only fruit in the order Fagales are true nuts.  In culinary terms, however, the term nut applies to any large, oily kernel found in a shell.  This allows us to call peanuts, nuts, even though they really are botanically fruits and in culinary terms, vegetables.  Anyone confused yet?
As a side note from the "some things are hard to categorize" department, a few years back Monika and I saw the Coco de Mer trees on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles.  It is the largest seed in the plant kingdom with a single seed growing to 40-50 cm in diameter and 15-30 kg.  The largest one on record weighed 42kg.  You don't want to be under these "fruit" when they fall.  So here is a "nut" that is much bigger than most vegetables.  Go figure.  The Coco de Mer looks sort of like a giant, two lobed coconut; which reminds me, a coconut is botanically a drupe, NOT a nut.  I'm starting to get the feeling that this isn't going to be so easy to clear up... 

A haul of tomatoes from the Digital Diner garden

OK, then what is a vegetable?  Well here is where the real problem arises.  A vegetable is an edible plant or part of a plant but not seeds and most fruit.  Do you see the problem here?  A vegetable is any part of a plant you eat as long as we don't consider it a fruit.  This is just the kind of opening that allows the legal system to step in a make a judgement as to what is legally a vegetable.  Of course, it can still get even more complicated.  Think about mushrooms.  No they aren't fruit.  They aren't even plants.  They are fungi.  Still many people consider them vegetables.  Oy!  Wikipedia sums it up with this:

There are at least four definitions relating to fruits and vegetables:
  • Fruit (botany): the ovary of a flowering plant (sometimes including accessory structures),
  • Fruit (culinary): any edible part of a plant with a sweet flavor,
  • Vegetable (culinary): any edible part of a plant with a savory flavor.
  • Vegetable (legal): commodities that are taxed as vegetables in a particular jurisdiction

So, the final answer as to whether something is a fruit or vegetable is, "it depends."  The definitions of nuts, fruits and vegetables seems to be quite vague.  It seems there is enough leeway that you can call any fruit or vegetable just about anything you want.  Here is our suggestion to help clear up the problems at least a little bit.  Let's call any edible plant or part of a plant a vegetable.  By this definition any fruit would also be a vegetable, but suppose we don't require fruits and vegetables to be mutually exclusive.  Then fruits are a subset of vegetables.  You would be correct to call a  tomato a fruit or a vegetable as you please.  It is both! I think we could even make room for the fungi in there too.  Vegetable could be a sort of catchall word for edible stuff that is grown.  Sure the tomato is a vegetable... and by the way, Pluto should still be a planet if I feel like it too.  Sorry that just slipped out. Anyway, lets try this on.  All grown (non-animal) food is vegetable.  Does that work for you?  What do you think?  

Now go eat your vegetables!

We grow lots of heirloom tomatoes at Digital Diner.
We expect this year's crop to start appearing in another  month or two.
This year we had a bumper crop of plums,
so we should be able to make it through the winter on our plum jam.
A bucket of lingonberries we picked in Sweden

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