Cucumbers are Not Vegetables and other Misnomers– Solving the Fruit vs. Vegetable Debate

By Jen Chan

There is a sad moment in nearly every individual’s life when their childhood innocence is lost and fourth grade dogmas are overturned. People inevitably discover the truth: “Fruits” and “Vegetables” have some serious labeling issues.

After recovering from the initial shock of discovering that tomatoes are technically fruits, more examples of faulty horticulture categorization rise to the surface.  Strawberries are not berries, peanuts are not nuts, and many popular “vegetables” such as avocados and bell peppers are technically fruits according to biological definition.  What happened here?

The Root of the Problem

On a botanical level, vegetables are the “edible portion of a plant” (i.e. the leaves, stems, roots, tubers, bulbs, and flowers)[1]. Meanwhile, fruits are the “mature ovary of a plant.” Thus anything that holds seeds inside, including pumpkins and cucumbers, can technically be classified as “fruits.” Researchers have been aware of this differentiation for over a hundred years now (even a General Botany textbook published in 1902 pointed out this distinction[2]) but scientists ultimately lost the classification battle. According to the law, plants which “constitute the principal part of the [meal]” are vegetables.

In 1893, the struggle to a tomato as a “fruit” or a “vegetable” climbed to the Supreme Court level through the case Nix v. Hedden.  Mr. Nixon, the plaintiff, claimed that his tomatoes were actually fruits; therefore, he was exempt from the 1883 Tariff Act that placed duties on vegetables.  The tax collector, Mr. Hedden, immediately rejected the claim[3]. Thus, the classic fruit vs. vegetables question appeared on the legal scene.

Both sides brought dictionaries to the table and viciously debated using definitions of tomatoes, peas, potatoes, cabbages, and various other types of produce[3]. Finally, the court delivered its ruling: Tomatoes were officially declared as vegetables.   The court’s opinion stated:

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine […] But in the common language of the people, [tomatoes] are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are like potatoes, carrots, […] and lettuce […][4]

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, botanical definitions suffered an irreconcilable blow.  Vegetables were officially deemed as plants that are “usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats” while fruits are “dessert”[4].


Overall, miscategorizations of fruits and vegetables stem from deeply rooted traditions. “Vegetables” are considered to be savory complements to meats, while “fruits” have a sugary dessert-like connotation. With this perception reinforced by the Supreme Court, it looks like future generations will be also plagued by faulty food pyramids and shocking fruit-vegetable category revelations.


[1] “Frequently Asked Questions.” Vegetable Research and Information Center – Frequently Asked Questions. University of California, Davis Department of Plant Sciences, n.d. Web. 29 May 2015.

[2] Stevens, William Chase. Introduction to Botany. Boston: D.C. Health, 1902. Print.

[3] Polomski, Bob. “Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable.” The Carolina Gardener. Clemson University, n.d. Web. 29 May 2015.

[4] Nix v. Heden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)

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