The Differences between Fruits and Vegetables

The difference between fruits and vegetables is cultural, not biological. Many of the foods we define as vegetables are biologically fruits. By botanical definition, a fruit is the seed bearing part of a flowering plant, which the flower turns into after being pollinated. Any vegetable that contains seeds is biologically a fruit. What we call fruit in the kitchen is also fruit by botanical definition. For vegetables, the definition is not so simple.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, eggplant, green beans, okra, and corn are all the fruits of their plants. Yet in the kitchen, we call them vegetables. We also tend to define foods that are the roots, stems, or leaves of their plants as vegetables. Any plant food that we do not define as something else… fruit, nut, grain, seed, or bean… gets defined as a vegetable.

The real differences between fruits and vegetables are their flavors and their usage. By culinary definition, most fruits are sweet, a few are tangy, and many fruits are both sweet and tangy. Vegetables, on the other hand, are savory. While some vegetables have a touch of sweetness to them, they are typically not as sweet as fruits can be and not tangy. Some vegetables are outright bitter, but nothing we eat as a fruit is.

When and how a food is eaten is another clue as to whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. We tend to segregate the two, almost never mixing fruits and vegetables in the same dish. A salad may be a vegetable salad or a fruit salad, but only the most creative of cooks would put fruits and vegetables in the same salad. Fruits are often eaten for breakfast, but vegetables rarely are, at least in Western cultures. Vegetables are usually served at dinner, but fruit typically is not, except as dessert.

In contrast to fruits, vegetables are never dessert in and of themselves. Some of the sweeter vegetables may be main ingredients in desserts, such as carrot cake or pumpkin pie, but no one would ever consider a plain carrot dessert. Fruits are often used as the base for sauces… applesauce is a household word… but that is not something we would typically do with savory vegetables.

Some food plants defy classification as fruit or vegetable. Tomatoes are arguably both. While they are usually eaten as vegetables, they are also commonly used as the base for sauce, and they are more likely than other vegetables to be combined with fruits. Jicamas, popular in Mexico and gaining popularity in the American Southwest, are root vegetables, but are sometimes eaten more like fruits. A jicama is sweet, similar in taste to an apple with a mild flavor. It is just as likely to be included in a fruit salad as a vegetable salad.

The difference between fruits and vegetables has no basis in science. Many vegetables are biologically fruits, and there is no botanical definition for vegetable. Instead, what is a fruit and what is a vegetable is defined by its flavor and culinary uses. A few food plants, such as the tomato and the jicama, arguably meet the criteria for both. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the differences are entirely cultural and not completely clear cut.


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