Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Updated: Mar. 27, 2024

Let's investigate a common kitchen query: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

The debate over a tomato’s identity is more than a hundred years old. In 1983, a Supreme Court case deemed the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes. Still, the question persists: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Let’s explore facts about tomatoes and uncover the identity of this unusual fruit-vegetable.

Fruits vs. Vegetables

Let’s look at a tomato’s botanical definition separately from its function in the kitchen. The culinary classification depends on how chefs use ingredients, while the botanical classification relies on the biological functions of plants.

In the garden

tomatoes growing in a gardenMykhailo Hrytsiv/getty images

The tomato belongs to the nightshade family and shares botanical characteristics with other fruits like eggplants, cucumbers and peppers. Yes, fruits! Scientifically, any plant structure that emerges from a flower and bears seeds is deemed a fruit, including zucchini, pumpkin and other squash. Thus, by the botanical definition, tomatoes are definitely fruits. Vegetables are generally categorized as the roots, stems or leaves.

Despite their association with the nightshade family, tomatoes thrive in sunny locations. In fact, planting them in the shade is one of many common tomato garden mistakes.

In the kitchen

Caprese Salad KabobsTMB studio

Chefs (like me!) frequently regard tomatoes as vegetables because of their use in savory recipes. Case in point, almost all of our juicy tomato recipes lean savory.

The way tomatoes are used in the kitchen doesn’t their botanical classification as fruits. Rather, it reflects how tomatoes work well in dishes with other vegetables, like pasta recipes. In the kitchen, you’ll find fruit in dishes with sweeter profiles, like pancakes or desserts. Nobody has ever asked for tomato pancakes or tomato chocolate mousse!

From a chef’s perspective, the endless savory uses of the tomato classify it as a vegetable. Whether they’re regular or heirloom tomatoes, we can’t get enough of them in simple salads like Caprese or more elegant dinners like vegetable tian.

Is a tomato a fruit?

Yes, a tomato is a fruit. The answer comes from a tomato’s botanical nature: The plant’s developed ovary comes from a flower containing seeds. In other words, fruits develop from flowering plants and contain seeds. Vegetables refer to the edible part of plants like the leaves, roots or stems that don’t contain seeds. (Think spinach, carrots and celery.)

Here’s to celebrating the tomato’s unique status as a cooking staple—a fruit and a vegetable rolled into one delectable package!