It seems easy at first. Fruits have seeds, vegetables don’t. Fruits are borne from a plant’s flowers, whereas vegetables grow in just about every other way. Then one day someone tells you that a banana is actually an herb and everything gets confusing all over again. Fruitstand is here to help! Keep reading to feel firmly planted in the distinction between fruits and vegetables.
A big reason why it can be difficult to tell whether a piece of produce is a fruit or vegetable is because of reasons that have nothing to do with farming. Botanically, fruits and vegetables are physically different based on where on the plant it came from. Culinarily, produce is divided between what tastes sweet and what doesn’t.
For instance, the reason we often think of a tomato as a vegetable (even though science tells us it's a fruit) is because in 1893, the US Supreme court ruled that imported tomatoes could be taxed as a vegetable and therefore wouldn’t have the costly higher tax rate that fruits are given. As a result, we think of the tomato as a vegetable for tax purposes rather than botanical ones.
Botanists, the people who study the science of plants, tell us that fruits are the reproductive organs of a plant. It’s botanically accurate to call just about anything that grows from the plant, and contains seeds or nuts, is the fruit. You can go forth with confidence knowing that lemons, bananas, inga beans and other legumes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, strawberries, olives, peppers, watermelons, avocados, even coconuts and kernels of corn, are indeed fruits.
Chefs, the people who study deliciousness, tell us that fruits make things taste fresh and sweet. The difference between fruits and vegetables gets seedy because of how we use them in recipes. In the culinary world, many techniques and ingredients (like produce) are used primarily in either sweet or savory dishes. For practical cooking reasons, sweet produce is often considered fruit, whereas more savory or not-so-sweet produce are considered vegetables. Therefore, because tomatoes are typically used in savory applications and less often in sweet foods, this botanical fruit gets relabeled as a culinary vegetable.
Vegetables are a much broader category and can include just about any edible part of a plant that isn’t the fruit. Edible leaves, stems, roots, shoots and flowers can all be considered vegetables. Beans, potatoes, leafy greens and lettuces, garlic and garlic scapes, carrots, basil and mint are all vegetables. Rhubarb, the strawberry’s bestie and tomato of the vegetable world, has a juicy, sweet flavor that is used most often in desserts and jams rather than savory dishes.
Whether a piece of produce is considered a legume, berry, herb, spice, or anything else is simply a more specific title than fruit or vegetable. For instance, seeds and nuts? Both from fruits. Herbs? They’re leafy vegetables. Spices? Could be either a fruit or vegetable because ‘spice’ is a culinary term, not a botanical one. Berries? Always fruits.
Next time you find yourself wondering whether the beautiful piece of produce you’re holding is a fruit or a vegetable, remember that the answer is often “it depends”. The answer could be different depending on whether you need the scientific definition or the culinary one.