History of the tomato – the world's most controversial vegetable (or fruit?)

History of the tomato – the world's most controversial vegetable (or fruit?)

Feb 07, 2022Jonathan Englert

Who knew a fruit could be so political? The tomato has a long and arduous history regarding its classification, origin, and cultivation. You're probably already familiar with the debate over whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable – but did you know that the fruit's (yes, fruit!) ambiguity caused such a ruckus that its classification came down to a matter of US Supreme Court ruling? And the controversy surrounding the fridge staple doesn't end there! Here are some other little-known facts about the tomatoes in your Good & Fugly box.

Poisonous Origins

The tomato's journey to the dinner table was long and fraught with difficulty. The Spanish introduced the tomato to Europe in the 1500s, but it was met with suspicion because of its resemblance to deadly nightshade. For many years, tomatoes were actually thought to be poisonous because of this association. It wasn't until the 1800s that tomatoes were finally accepted as a food crop!

Fruit or Vegetable?

The tomato's classification as a fruit or vegetable has been the subject of much debate. The botanical definition of a fruit is "a structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant and contains the seeds." Technically, tomatoes are classified as a berry, which falls under the botanical umbrella of fruit. But since tomatoes are not as sweet as other fruits – and the culinary definition of a fruit is "a food that is sweet and juicy" – some argue it should be considered a vegetable instead.

Supreme Court Decision

So why is are tomatoes more commonly understood as vegetables? It likely has to do with a US Supreme Court ruling in 1892. When taxes on imported vegetables were introduced in the 1800s, major fresh producer importer John Nix argued that his tomatoes should be exempt because, botanically, tomatoes are fruit. The court heard his case, however ruled  against him. They decided the 'common' meanings of fruit and vegetable would be used for the taxes, and so tomatoes officially became vegetables under US law. 

The Tomato Today

Regardless of whether you're Team Fruit or Team Vegetable, the tomato is a versatile source of nutrients, including vitamins A and C, potassium, and lycopene. Enjoy them fresh, roasted, juiced or canned!

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