Is it a fruit? Is it a vegetable? It is a superfood. Britons eat half around half a million tonnes of them a year, the equivalent of two per person per week. According to a YouGov survey for the fourth quarter of 2021, they are our eighth most popular vegetable and, Kantar report, we are most likely to add them to our lunch. Known for their high nutritional content, they are a great source of vitamins C and K, potassium, and folate, and a major dietary source for the antioxidant, lycopene, which is credited with reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.
So ubiquitous is Solanum lycopersicum, otherwise known as the tomato, in our diet, that it is curious that there is still uncertainty as to whether it is a fruit or vegetable. Botanically, it contains seeds and, therefore, a fruit, classically defined as a seed-bearing receptacle that grows from the ovary of a flowering plant. More specifically, it is a berry with a firm skin, known as the exocarp, and a fleshy, pulpy interior, the mesocarp, in which the seeds are held. Bring a tomato into a kitchen, though, and it is treated like vegetables because of its relatively low fructose levels, used primarily in savoury dishes rather than desserts.
To many, the precise categorisation of a tomato may seem moot, a subject for a lively dinner table discussion, but for John Nix it was a matter of some import. His company was one of the largest sellers of produce in New York City, shipping fruit and vegetables, including tomatoes, from Virginia, Florida, and Bermuda. All was plain sailing until the introduction of the Tariff Act in 1883, imposing a levy on imported vegetables but not fruit. Zealous customs officials levied the tax on Nix’s tomatoes, forcing Nix to apply to the Supreme Court to recover the duties paid and to classify tomatoes as fruit.
In Nix v Hedden (1893), the judges, while accepting that the tomato was, botanically, a fruit, ruled that “in the common language of the people…all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are …usually served at dinner in, with, or after soup, fish, or meats, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally, as dessert”. In a tussle between taxes and botany, it was inevitable that the tax authorities would win, condemning the tomato to the subset of the Venn diagram of fruit and vegetable.
The tomato was brought over to Europe in the early 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors from Mexico, where it both grew in the wild and was cultivated. Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, was the first to write about what he called “golden apples”, linking it to both the nightshade and an aphrodisiac of the time, the mandrake.
This link to the Solanaceae family was to have significant ramifications for the tomato as we will find out next time.