Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables?

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Here's a scene you'll probably see this summer: you'll be at a barbecue or picnic, enjoying nice, fresh in-season tomatoes, and you might make an offhand comment about tomatoes being your favorite vegetable. Almost immediately, some know-it-all will pipe up with, "Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables!"

No one would blame you if you told your pedantic guest, "Wow! Thanks for correcting me! It's clear now why everyone enjoys your company so much!" That response is a bit aggressive, though, so try this one instead: "Actually, according to the Supreme Court, tomatoes are vegetables. I'm just trying to keep this picnic nice and legal."

Yes, the Supreme Court has weighed in on the "Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?" debate, and the justices came to a firm conclusion: tomatoes are veggies. Let's take a look at how this momentous decision came to pass.

The Trouble with Tariffs

Like a lot of American' history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff.

In March 1883, Congress passed a new tariff act that put a 10-percent import duty on any whole vegetables brought into the country. The new tariff didn't really cause any hullabaloo until the produce-importing Nix family tried to bring a load of tomatoes from the West Indies into New York. The collector of the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, charged the Nixes the 10-percent duty on their tasty wares despite their angry protests that tomatoes were fruits, not vegetables. Hedden refused to classify the offending tomatoes as fruit, so the Nixes sued him to recover their tariff duties.

Ripening Justice

Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case. Tomatoes fit the bill of being the fleshy ripened ovaries of a plant, which makes them fruits. Legally, things weren't quite so open-and-shut, though. The Nixes' efforts to be reimbursed for the tariff duties kicked off a six-year legal battle that ended with arguments before the Supreme Court in 1893. The Nix family's lawyer read the Justices the definitions for "fruit," "vegetable," and "tomato" from various dictionaries and even called in expert testimony from fellow produce merchants on whether the grocers thought tomatoes were fruits or vegetables.

The defense used many of the same tactics in its efforts to convince the justices that tomatoes were indeed vegetables. The defense counsel went to the dictionary for definitions for "squash," "pepper," "eggplant," and "cucumber." The defense's argument was pretty simple: sure, tomatoes were biologically a fruit, but for the purposes of trade and commerce—that is, the things covered by the Tariff Act of 1883—tomatoes were really vegetables.

The Court Rules

When faced with this information, the Supreme Court unanimously found that tomatoes were vegetables. Justice Horace Gray admitted in his decision that while tomatoes were technically the fruit of a vine, they were always served "at dinner in, with, or after the soup fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert." In other words, unless people wanted to start capping a meal with tomato ice cream, tomatoes were for all intents and purposes vegetables and could be taxed as such. The Nix family wasn't getting its import duties back.

Sound strange? Here's something that's even weirder: the Supreme Court actually had a precedent for a very similar issue. In his decision Justice Gray referenced a previous Supreme Court case, Robertson v. Salomon, in which Justice Joseph P. Bradley had written the opinion that beans were vegetables rather than seeds. In that 1892 decision, Bradley rebuffed the notion that beans were seeds:

"We do not see why they should be classified as seeds, any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term 'vegetables.' As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put."

Tomatoes-As-Veggies Lives On

At first glance, the Nix v. Hedden decision sounds like a Gilded Age curiosity, but the whole "tomatoes are a vegetable" notion still pops up from time to time. In 1981 the Reagan administration was searching for ways to cut school lunch costs while still providing students with the full nutritious lunch consisting of milk, meat, bread, and two servings of vegetables. USDA bureaucrats hit on the idea of counting ketchup as one of the servings of vegetables under the logic that ketchup was cheap and kid-friendly.

As you might imagine, parents and the media weren't so keen on the idea of counting a smear of ketchup on a burger as eating your vegetables. The proposition enraged parents and nutritionists alike, and the administration quickly scrapped the plan.


In 2005, Nix v. Hedden came back into the news in New Jersey. The Garden State is nationally known for its delicious tomatoes, and lobbyists have used the Supreme Court's vegetable ruling in their efforts to get the tomato named the state vegetable. Arkansas had earlier decided to play both sides of the debate in 1987 when it passed a single bill declaring the South Arkansas Pink Vine Ripe Tomato both the official state fruit and the official state vegetable. Tennessee and Ohio, on the other hand, have pleased botanists by making the tomato their official state fruits.

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June 9, 2010 - 7:05am
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