Everything you thought you knew about produce is about to be turned on its head. Here's how to differentiate fruits from vegetables (the list may surprise you!).

By Jenny Krane
May 24, 2019

It seems pretty obvious—we all know that apples are fruits and cucumbers are vegetables. But, are they really? Apples are indeed fruits, but you might be surprised to know that cucumbers are actually, botanically speaking, a fruit as well. There are edible plants that we associate as fruits and vegetables based on their flavor and how we use them in cooking, but by using that way of identification, some plants are often misclassified.

The most controversial example of misclassified produce is the tomato—is it a fruit or a vegetable? It has seeds and a structure like an apple, but it doesn’t have the same sweet taste as most fruits. Most of us would call tomatoes a vegetable because you grow them in a vegetable garden with potatoes, lettuce, and carrots (which are vegetables). Legally in the United States, since a court ruling in 1893, tomatoes are considered to be vegetables. But, scientifically, tomatoes are actually fruits. Here are a few more facts about fruits and veggies that might make you rethink a few things.

How to Classify Fruits and Vegetables

From a culinary standpoint, fruits and vegetables are separated based on taste: fruits are sweet or sour, and vegetables are more mild and savory. Fruits make great garnishes, desserts, or juices, while vegetables are a hearty side dish or base for the main course.

Nutritionally, the only large generalization that can be made is that sweet fruits tend to be higher in natural sugars. Other than that, vitamins, sugar content, fiber, and carbohydrates vary a lot by the individual plant. The USDA recommends eating a mix of fruits and vegetables throughout the day so that you'll get a larger variety of vitamins and nutrients in your diet.

Although we use these edible plants in a certain way in the kitchen, their botanical makeup classifies them differently. Fruits come from the flower of the plant that they grow on. If the produce develops from other parts of the plant besides the flower, it’s considered a vegetable. Fruits contain seeds. Vegetables consist of roots, stems, and leaves.

Fruits That Are Commonly Misclassified as Vegetables

Just because we consider some produce to be our veggies in our savory meals, doesn't mean they are technically a vegetable. Although these fruits tend to be more mild and savory in flavor, they come from the flower of the plant they grow on. They also have seeds (or a pit).

In the kitchen, it doesn't really matter if the plant product you're using is a fruit or a vegetable—vegetables can be used in dessert (hello, carrot cake) and fruit can be used in savory dishes, like a summery dinner salad. Although it won't change your cooking too much, it's always good to know what you're dealing with, especially if you are growing the produce yourself. And, your new edible food knowledge may help you at your next trivia night.

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