That Time When The Supreme Court Had to Decide Whether Tomatoes Are Fruits or Vegetables

Jun 8, 2023 0 comments

Is tomato a fruit or a vegetable? It is a trick question, because the answer depends on who you ask. A botanist will tell you that it’s a fruit, but ask a lawyer and you’ll have a different answer.

The fruit versus vegetable controversy is an old one, and even though the science is clear on that, it pops up in the press every few years. A fruit is the seed-bearing structure of a plant that develops from the ovary of the flower. A vegetable is any part of a plant which we consume. This can include flowers, stems, leaves, roots, seeds, and even fruits themselves. Fruit is a botanical term, whereas vegetable is a culinary term, and to mix both can only create confusion. But fruits also have a culinary meaning. Fruits tend to be sweet and are taken as snacks or desserts, while vegetables are less on fructose and tend to be served as part of the main dish or side dish. Under this classification, tomatoes can be considered vegetables, but so can many other botanical fruits such as green beans, pumpkins, cucumbers and eggplants.

Credit: domdomegg/Wikimedia

The Supreme Court of the United States got dragged into the controversary in 1893 when a Manhattan-based wholesaler named John Nix filed suit against Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York, challenging tomato’s status.

Ten years previously, the United States passed the Tariff Act of 1883, which tripled the tax on imported vegetables, but fruits were exempt from the tax. John Nix & Co., which was, at that time, the largest sellers of produce in New York City and one of the first companies to ship produce from abroad, figured they could save a substantial sum if they could argue that tomatoes are fruits and not vegetables.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Nix’s attorneys produced three different dictionaries and read them aloud, the definition of “fruit” and “vegetable”. They also called two witnesses, who had been in the business of selling fruit and vegetables for 30 years, for their expert opinion. One of the questions asked to them was whether these terms had "any special meaning in trade or commerce, different from those read".

One witness testified the following

[The dictionary] does not classify all things there, but they are correct as far as they go. It does not take all kinds of fruit or vegetables; it takes a portion of them. I think the words 'fruit' and 'vegetable' have the same meaning in trade today that they had on March 1, 1883. I understand that the term 'fruit' is applied in trade only to such plants or parts of plants as contain the seeds. There are more vegetables than those in the enumeration given in Webster's Dictionary under the term 'vegetable,' as 'cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, and the like,' probably covered by the words 'and the like.

The other witness also agreed that the terms 'fruit' and 'vegetables' did not have any special meaning in trade and commerce, different from what is already in the dictionaries.

Justice Horace Gray noted that since the words have acquired no special meaning in trade or commerce, the ordinary meaning must be used by the court, and according to the common parlance, the tomato is a vegetable. While delivering his verdict, Gray stated:

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 sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually 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.

This was not the first time the Supreme Court was forced to decide upon botanical definitions of food. In 1886, a importer argued that beans were seeds, but Justice Joseph Bradley ruled that they were vegetables. “We do not see why they should be classified as seeds any more than walnuts should be so classified,” Bradley said. “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’.”

The fruit versus vegetable debate rose once again in 2005 when two US states, Tennessee and Ohio, named the tomato their state fruit. While New Jersey, citing Nix v. Hedden, made it the state vegetable. To add to the confusion, the European Union issued a directive in December 2001 classifying tomatoes as fruit, along with rhubarb, carrots, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons.

In the end, it all boils down to the question of literal truth versus cultural convention. If you want to understand the tomato as an organic structure, one must acknowledge it as a fruit. However, when discussing matters related to food choices, it is misleading to label the tomato as a fruit, given that it is predominantly consumed as a vegetable—in salads, as a topping, as a foundation for condiments and so on.

As the great humorist writer Miles Kington puts it, knowledge consists of knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

# Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893), Justia
# Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893, Smithsonian
# The obscure Supreme Court case that decided tomatoes are vegetables, Washington Post
# Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?, Britannica


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}