Just when you thought that you knew everything there is to know about food, some know-it-all tells you that a tomato is actually a fruit. The battle over the classification of fruits and vegetables has had the culinary and botanical world pitted against each other for years, which in turn makes us confused about the real definitions as well. So what is a fruit? And what makes a plant qualify to be called a vegetable?
There have been many ways to describe it, but in the botanical world, fruit is the mature ovaries of a flowering plant (more formally known as angiosperms).
All sorts of different plants in this world belong to different classifications, but let’s focus on a type of land plant (plants that live on land) which is most familiar – the seed plants (spermatophytes). From the name itself, one can already deduce that these types of plants produce seeds of their own.
Seed plants or spermatophytes are divided into two main groups: gymnosperms and angiosperms. What makes the two different is that gymnosperms are “naked seeds”, meaning that the seeds are not enclosed – an example of which is a conifer. Meanwhile, angiosperms have seeds which are enclosed in an ovary – like the seeds of grapes.
A fruit results in the maturation of an ovary and its purpose as a seed-bearing structure is also to help the flowering plant disseminate its seeds. However, there has been a contradiction of definition between the culinary and botanical world.
Humans have become accustomed to thinking a fruit is the fleshy part that is usually sweet and surrounds the seed. However, botanists would tell you that beans, corns, tomatoes and wheat can all be classified as fruits based on their seed-producing nature.
Just like with fruit, there has been much confusion as to what really is a vegetable. But in the biological context, it describes all types of plant. Most people in the culinary world would however define it as any part of a plant than can be consumed as part of a savory meal. It is widely accepted that fruits, nuts and most grains are not vegetables.
Along with fruits, they are some of the most recommended foods for inclusion in our diet because they are low in carbohydrates and fats, but are relatively high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. The concept of the nature of a vegetable and what constitutes it vary because so many people worldwide consume them.
In the botanical sense, the main difference is that fruits are clearly defined as the mature ovaries of a plant while vegetables may constitute the other parts of the plant such as the roots, leaves and stems.
Traditionally, the easiest way to differentiate the two is that most people regard vegetables as something that is eaten as part of the main course and is savory, whereas fruits are usually consumed as a dessert or as a snack.
Fruits contain plenty of sugar called fructose which makes them sweet, while their seeds remain bitter. When animals eat fruits, they tend to spit out the bitter seeds or excrete them in the form of rich manure, allowing a new plant to grow and thus continuing the cycle of life. Vegetables contain less fructose which makes less them less sweet, and are ideal for cooking.
Nutrition wise, fruits contain more sugar and therefore, more calories. That’s why most people who go on a diet still tend to restrict their fruit intake. Vegetables have fewer calories, but starchy ones like potato and beet can have more calories.
The botanical definitions are often disregarded because humans are more accustomed to their culinary differences. Take for example, tomatoes and eggplants, which are, botanically speaking, fruits but are considered as vegetables by the majority of people.
|Ripened ovaries of a flowering plant||Any other edible part of plants|
|Sweet or sour||Savory|
|Used in desserts/snacks||Used in main dishes|