Many things in life can’t be separated into black and white—and that includes tomatoes. Depending on who you ask, some may say they’re fruits while others will contend that they’re very obviously vegetables. In this article, we will explore the fascinating science and history behind the tomato’s classification and why it matters to you!
A tomato is considered both a fruit and a vegetable. To be more specific, science recognizes a tomato as a fruit because it is a plant’s mature ovary. However, the court of law in America classifies a tomato as a vegetable because it is commonly used as an ingredient in savory dishes.
Why does a tomato’s classification as a fruit or vegetable even matter? It has a huge impact in terms of import taxes—at least in the United States. Continue scrolling to learn more!
Are Tomatoes Classified as Fruits or Vegetables?
In botany, tomatoes are viewed as true fruits because they grow from flowers and contain seeds within their fleshy walls. But a US court ruling dating back to 1893 declares tomatoes as vegetables because of how people use them in the kitchen.
While you may hear some say that tomato is a false fruit, it’s actually their claim that is false. Ask any botanist whether a tomato is a fruit and you’ll receive a unanimous answer: tomato is a fruit.
Scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit because it forms due to the maturation of its flower’s ovaries. But if you want to be more specific, tomatoes are berries just like grapes and bananas!
The fleshy walls of the tomato protect the seeds inside to ensure that they can reproduce once growing conditions are ideal.
Experts estimate that ancient cherry-sized tomatoes may have existed for 80,000 years already. This fruit-bearing plant then got domesticated around 7,000 years ago, resulting in the modern-day tomato.
Simultaneously though, many other professionals including nutritionists and chefs mainly consider tomatoes as a vegetable as that’s typically how it’s prepared in the kitchen.
Want to grow them at home? Check out our guide on growing tomatoes from seed!
That’s how many ordinary people classified tomatoes in the late 1800s as well, resulting in a court ruling. You see, tomatoes weren’t specifically mentioned nor categorized in the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883. But the issue is, vegetables were taxed but not fruits!
So merchants back then argued that they shouldn’t have to pay a 10% tariff since tomatoes were indeed fruits by definition. The court, however, ruled that although tomatoes are technically a fruit how they are ordinarily used and cooked in the kitchen.
So whether you view tomatoes as fruits, vegetables, or both, it isn’t really a big deal unless you’re in the business of bringing in foreign tomato varieties into the American Market!
The 2 Categorical Differences Between Fruits and Vegetables
Produce from plants is generally identified as either fruits or vegetables based on their 2 main categorical differences according to 1) botany and 2) culinary arts.
Many of the vegetables we know and love are fruits according to science. But practical applications don’t always match with theoretical definitions —which is why it’s best to consider both the botanical and culinary differences between fruits and vegetables!
1. Botanical Difference
Fruits such as tomatoes are botanically identified as seed-bearing growth from flowers. Vegetables, on the other hand, are often harvested from a plant’s edible roots, stems, and leaves that have no seeds.
Simply put, plant structures botanically distinguish fruits from vegetables and vice versa.
In reality, though, vegetables aren’t as strictly classified as fruits are in botany. So you could think of vegetables as any edible seedless part of a plant that doesn’t come from its flowers.
That is unless we’re talking about immature flowers, such as artichokes, broccoli, and cauliflower. Other than that, we also have taproots like carrots, bulbs like onions, tubers like potatoes, stems like asparagus, and leaves like spinach in the veggie group.
By contrast, scientists are more clear-cut with their definition of fruits like tomatoes. A ripened or mature ovary from a plant’s flower. This also includes crops like cucumbers and melons.
Learn more in our article entitled Are Cucumbers Fruits or Vegetables?
What I find most interesting about this topic is the fact that all vegetables are generally edible whereas many fruits are actually poisonous! (I’ll talk more about this in a bit.)
2. Culinary Difference
In the kitchen, tomatoes are used similarly to other vegetables. Despite some varieties having a particularly sweet taste, tomatoes are mainly used in savory dishes and in sauces while fruits are mainly eaten raw or used for desserts.
Most people are more familiar with how to identify fruits and vegetables based on their taste and culinary uses.
You’ve probably already heard of people differentiating fruits from vegetables by saying that fruits are generally sweet whereas vegetables aren’t. Some would further argue that vegetables may be bitter. But none of these are hard-and-fast rules.
As someone who has loved vegetables since I was young, I can tell you that many vegetables—including many tomato varieties—also have a natural hint of sweetness!
One more basis people use for classifying fruits and vegetables is how they are eaten and cooked.
Fruits like apples, for instance, are either eaten fresh on their own, blended into ice creams and smoothies, baked into sweet pastries and bread, or cooked into a variety of desserts.
Compared to that, vegetables like potatoes are often cooked into savory dishes—from breakfast to dinner meals. They can also be eaten raw in salads and green smoothies.
But again, this debate isn’t black and white. People can be quite arbitrary with their definitions. Remember, sweet cherry tomatoes are a great healthy snack on their own. Even rhubarb—a stalk vegetable—is used to create a sweet pie!
6 Fruits and Vegetables Related to Tomatoes
Fruits and vegetables related to tomatoes include 1) eggplant, 2) Jerusalem cherry, 3) nipplefruit, 4) peppers, 5) potato, and 6) tomatillo. Out of these, only the nipplefruit plant is completely inedible.
Tomatoes are closely related to numerous plants in the Solanaceae family, more commonly known as nightshades. Many of them have similar genetic and flower structures.
Such plants also contain toxic compounds, generally called alkaloids, which make certain parts poisonous when eaten. But don’t worry, I’ll tell you which ones are safe to eat!
1. Eggplant (Solanum melongena)
Other Names: Aubergine
Light Requirement: Full sun
Plant Hardiness: 8–12
Average Size: 24–48 inches (60–120 cm)
Though they look nothing alike, tomatoes and eggplants are closely related plants belonging to the nightshade family. But their flowers are pretty much identical, save for their color.
You’re likely most familiar with the purple elongated eggplant but it comes in different colors and shapes.
Calliope eggplants, for example, are a small variety characterized by their purple and white streaks. Kermit is another cute eggplant variety that’s light green in color.
Bake, fry, grill, or stew them—experiment as much as you like but never eat eggplants raw. They contain alkaloids such as solanine which can be lethal when consumed in large amounts. None of their other plant parts are edible either.
2. Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum)
Other Names: False Jerusalem cherry, natal cherry, winter cherry
Light Requirement: Full sun
Plant Hardiness: 8–10
Average Size: 4–36 inches (10–90 cm)
Jerusalem cherry is another plant in the Solanaceae family that’s related to tomato plants. Their leaves are different but their flowers and red fruits resemble that of tomatoes.
Although their juicy little fruits look quite tempting, don’t pop them into your mouth.
The appetizing fruits—or any other plant part, for that matter—of the false Jerusalem cherry contain lots of solanine and solanocapsine. These are highly toxic alkaloids commonly found in nightshade plants.
In the best-case scenario, you may just experience nausea and vomiting. But in very serious cases, eating natal cherries can result in seizures and shock.
3. Nipplefruit (Solanum mammosum)
Other Names: Apple of Sodom, cow’s udder, zombi apple
Light Requirement: Full sun
Plant Hardiness: 11–12
Average Size: 24–36 inches (60–90 cm)
Nipplefruit is a bizarre-looking fruit that is also related to tomatoes. Just like tomatoes, it’s also native to South America. So they’re hardy to zones 11–12 and can’t handle frost well.
To me, the fruits of this woody perennial nightshade plant honestly look like mutate orange-colored lemons.
Unlike tomatoes, however, nipplefruits are not edible. They are mainly grown as ornamental plants because of their unique fruit.
4. Peppers (Capsicum spp.)
Other Names: Cayenne pepper, chili pepper, bell pepper, habanero
Light Requirement: Full sun or partial shade
Plant Hardiness: 4–11
Average Size: 12–72 inches (30–182 cm)
Both are known for their flavorful and bright fruits, so it’s not so surprising that peppers and tomatoes are related to each other.
They also go well together in a variety of sauces and dishes like salsa and pizza. So grow them at home if you’re a fan of such refreshing and rich foods.
What sets peppers apart from tomatoes, in my opinion, is their characteristic spice. This is thanks to capsaicin, which can also be an irritant—making it a great ingredient for self-defense sprays, popularly known as pepper sprays.
5. Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
Other Names: Irish potato, white potato
Light Requirement: Full sun
Plant Hardiness: 2–11
Average Size: 12–24 inches (30–60 cm)
Potato is another plant that not many people realize is related to tomatoes because potatoes are starchy tubers while tomatoes are fleshy fruits.
However, potato plants can bear fruits too—though very rare. If you ever chance upon the small green or yellow fruits of potatoes, don’t eat them!
The tiny berries of potatoes—resembling unripe tomatoes—are rich in numerous alkaloids including solanine so stick to eating the tubers only. Most other parts of this plant can be highly toxic, causing abdominal pains and respiratory failure.
6. Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa)
Other Names: Ground cherry, husk tomatoes
Light Requirement: Full sun
Plant Hardiness: 7–10
Average Size: 30–42 inches (76–106 cm)
Out of the plants which are genetically related to tomatoes, I would say that tomatillos are, by far, almost identical to tomatoes.
Also known as husk tomatoes due to the papery inflated flower calyx that surrounds the unripe fruit, tomatillos are a particularly known ingredient of salsa verde. It’s also used to cook many other amazing hot Mexican dishes.
It has a more tart flavor compared to regular tomatoes since it’s often used while it’s still green and immature. They’re also great in green salads, jams, and jellies.
Can dogs eat tomatoes?
Dogs can eat ripe tomatoes in moderation as these no longer contain alkaloids. Unripe green tomatoes, and other parts of tomato plants, must never be offered to dogs and most other pets as they contain toxic compounds like solanine and tomatine. The consumption of these alkaloids can result in hypersalivation, diarrhea, and organ depression.
When did humans start eating tomatoes?
It is believed that humans started eating prehistoric tomatoes around 500 BC. Native ancient Mexicans, the Aztecs, are thought to be the first humans to grow and eat the crop called xitomatl, later known as tomatl. From Mexico, tomatoes were brought to Spain and the Philippines—from which they were spread throughout the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
Summary of Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable
Depending on the context, tomatoes can either be categorized as a fruit or a vegetable. In most scientific settings, tomatoes are fruits—berries to be more specific. But in everyday applications, tomatoes are used and prepared like most other vegetables which have been recognized by the US Supreme Court in 1893.
Eggplants, Jerusalem cherries, nipplefruits, peppers, potatoes, and tomatilloes are fruits and vegetables which belong to the Solanaceae family of plants including tomatoes. But due to the alkaloid content of these crops, only their ripe fruits and tubers are completely safe to eat. Nipplefruits and potato berries, however, both of which are toxic.
- “Vegetable Seed Production” by Dr. Greg Welbaum in the Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech
- “The history of tomatoes: How a tropical became a global crop” by Ryan Pankau in Illinois Extension
- “Is the Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable” by Clarence J. Ruddy in Notre Dame Law Review
- “When is a vegetable really a fruit?” by Emily S. Davenport in the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension
- “What’s the difference between fruit and vegetables?” by Ailsa Harvey in Live Science
- “Solanaceae” by n/a in NC State Extension
- “FAMILY – Solanaceae” by n/a in the Missouri Botanical Garden