Food & Alcohol

Published on March 19th, 2013

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You say tomato, I say false advertising?

Tomatoes are red, juicy, delicious, a deterrent for bad comedians, and the base for a number of sauces, soups, and juices. Yet for all their uses, an age-old question still lingers over the tomato: Are they fruits or vegetables? Specifically, truthinadvertising.org reader Linda F. wants to know whether V8’s advertising holds up for its 100 percent vegetable juices that contain tomatoes.

What’s a vegetable?

In botanical terms, Linda F. has a point. Fruits are the ripened ovaries and seeds of a flowering plant, and tomatoes are therefore fruits in the strictest sense. But culinarily speaking, tomatoes are lower in sugar than most fruits, are closely related to potatoes and eggplants, and are prepared by cooking and boiling as vegetables often are. As such, they’re often grouped with vegetables.

The issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1800s after a tariff act had declared the tomato a vegetable, making the distinction a financially important one to importers bringing tomatoes into the United States. A produce importer in New York who had to pay taxes on his tomatoes sued, arguing that tomatoes were fruits and thus should not be subject to the tariff. Justice Horace Gray wrote in the 1893 Nix v. Hedden Supreme Court decision:

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables …”

So while tomatoes are botanically fruits, they were legally declared vegetables, at least in the United States and for the purposes of tariffs. The Nix v. Heddon decision is still occasionally cited today.

Condiment controversy

But even government can’t keep the fruit-or-vegetable distinction straight for tomatoes and tomato products. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan lobbied to classify ketchup and other condiments as a vegetable so they would meet the vegetable serving requirements for school lunch programs facing budget cuts. He lost. But under current rules, tomato paste used on a slice of pizza qualifies as a serving of vegetables.

Even the states disagree with one another and even themselves. The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey. It is also the state fruit of both Ohio and Tennessee. It is both the state fruit and the state vegetable of Arkansas.

And even dictionaries still disagree, some listing tomatoes as an example of a vegetable.

V8: Vegetable or fruit juice?

So while there is a botanical argument against labeling products containing tomatoes as 100-percent vegetable, V8’s probably in the clear. Tomato, tomato, as they say.

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