Friday, November 13, 2009

Tomatoes are Vegetables, Legally

The official USDA Definition of Specialty Crops found its way into my mailbox this week.
"The terms used to describe these specializations derive from millennia of common usage and are sometimes at odds with botanical nomenclature. For example, vegetables are described as herbaceous plants of which some portion is eaten raw or cooked during the main part of a meal. Fruits, for horticultural purposes, are described as plants from which a more or less succulent fruit or closely related botanical structure is commonly eaten as a dessert or snack. By these definitions, plants such as tomato, squash and cucumber are considered vegetables despite the fact that the edible portion is defined botanically as a fruit. The delineation of plants by common usage was legally established in 1893 by the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Nix vs. Hedden."
It's never occurred to me that plant names could have legal definitions in addition to scientific and colloquial ones, but there you go!


  1. If the legal definition of fruits and vegetables is set by the regular uses of the food, does that mean the definition for individual items could switch? If we stopped eating plums whole, but only in sandwiches and casseroles, would they suddenly become a vegetable? I'm actually known people who liked tomatoes so much they ate them plain as snacks.

  2. Yeah, I imagine so. The rest of the document wasn't much more informative, but the fact that the "delineation of plants by common usage" was set by the Supreme Court, I imagine commercial interests that preferred to categorize a given food as a fruit or vegetable could justify it with contemporary usage.

  3. I just came across a reference that rhubarb stems were declared a fruit in one court because they are baked into sweet dishes.

  4. This does help point out the difference between "legal" and "correct", in which legal is no more than what the law says it is, but that does make it easier to declare ignorance of ignorant laws.

  5. P.S. and apparently rhubarb is a fruit!



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