As a tomato grower and “consumer”, this topic comes up from time to time at my house. There’s never a heated discussion, but it usually means more questions than answers. Ward Upham, K-State Horticulturists passed along an interesting article to help answer this question. Here’s his piece; “If you want to start a lively discussion, ask a gardener whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Actually, tomatoes are both. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit, but horticulturally and legally, the tomato is a vegetable. There is an interesting story behind the legal decision that tomatoes are a vegetable. It all comes back to Congress and protective tariffs.
In 1883, the U.S. Congress passed an act establishing protective tariffs on several commodities including vegetables. There was a 10 percent tariff imposed on the value of imported vegetables coming into the US from the Caribbean. An enterprising importer had a load of tomatoes shipped from the Caribbean region through the port of New York in 1886. When assessed a tariff, he protested saying tomatoes were fruits and not vegetables. He sued through the court system and his case eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that tomatoes were to be classed as vegetables, not fruit. Therefore, he lost the case and had to pay the tariff. In 1893, Justice Horace Gray wrote the following opinion for the court:
“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people – whether consumers or sellers of provisions – all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens and, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery or lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the meal, and not, like fruits generally, like deserts.”
This Supreme Court decision established the working definition that is currently used to
determine whether a particular food item should be classed as a fruit or vegetable. However, there is still some question regarding melons because they are grown like vegetables but are generally eaten like fruits. We may need another court decision for melons.