Experiencing the diverse tastes of fruit and vegetables everyday, knowing which is which might be taken for granted. However, there is much confusion about these terms. Furthermore, many true fruits are often regarded to be vegetables and vice versa. So, what is the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?
The meaning of the words fruit and vegetables are largely based on culinary and cultural tradition. In grocery-store language the words “fruit” and “vegetable” are mutually exclusive – plant products that are fruit are hardly classified as vegetables. Fruit normally means the fleshy, sweet seed-associated structures of a plant, while a vegetable usually means the edible plant or part of a plant other than a fruit or seed.
From a biologically point of view however, a fruit is a plant structure that contains its seed. Strictly speaking, the word “fruit” is only used if it comes from the part of the flower which was an ovary, the fleshy part of the flower around the seeds. In this sense there are fruits which are not true fruits since they are not totally derived from the ovary, for example figs, pineapples and strawberries. These are therefore called accessory fruits.
Cereals such as corn, wheat and rice are also technically fruits. However, since the fruit wall is very thin and fused to the seed the are better considered just cereals. Also nuts are fruits from a biological point of view in which the ovary wall becomes very hard.
There are many true fruits which are generally treated as vegetables, mainly because they are not sweet. Just to name a few: cucumber, pumpkin, corn, eggplant, tomatoes, avocado, peas and beans. However, these “culinary vegetables” are thus actually “botanically fruits” because they are the ovary of a flower.
So in essence, from a cultural and culinary point of view fruits and vegetables are seen as two distinct categories, while from a biological view many plant parts usually called vegetables are actually fruits. Depending on the point of view, many plant parts can thus be seen as either vegetable or fruit. This double meaning is best expressed in a 1893 court case which addressed whether a tomato was classified as a fruit or a vegetable. Unanimously it was decided that the tomato was classified as a vegetable, while the judge also acknowledged that tomatoes are botanically classified as fruits.
Still wondering if a specific fruit might be a vegetable or vice versa? Ask your question in the comments!