On October 5th, 2015 we learned about

The mishmash of meanings we’ve manufactured for “vegetables”

I’m probably going to regret sharing this with my kids, but… vegetables are a bit of a lie. Obviously carrots, potatoes, and broccoli are all real plants, but the idea that a “vegetable” is actually something more specific than “foods my kids will whine about” isn’t really true. The word itself originally just referred to plant life. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it took on the now common meaning of “plants we eat.”

Botanically bankrupt

Compared to fruit being structures meant to carry a plant’s seeds, the idea of a vegetable has sort of been mushed into a catch all for “everything else.” From a botanical perspective, there’s no real relationship between carrots, lettuce, onions or mushrooms. As a root, leaf, bulb and a fungus-that’s-not-even-a-plant, it’s clear that the ingredients of a vegetable soup are there because of our taste preferences more than anything else. But even with that degree of flexibility, the categorization of different edible plants has been stretched to a degree where you might be tempted to define “vegetables” simply along the lines of “I know one when I see one.”

Legal logic

In 1883, the Tariff Act in the United States was raising prices on imported vegetables, but not fruit. It would seem that this distinction would be pretty cut and dry, thanks to tomatoes carrying seeds and thus clearly being fruits. The Supreme Court disagreed though, basically saying the common usage of tomatoes as vegetables in most cooking trumped stricter definitions, and that the tariff could be imposed. The European Union has gone the other way, ruling that rhubarb, carrots and sweet potatoes are all fruit, at least if they’re being used in jams.

These legal rulings can matter to more than just tariffs though. In regulating the nutritional standards for school lunches, Congress has waded into the murky waters of defining vegetables, far beyond concerns over seeds, roots or leaves. In the 1980s, changes were made that would effectively allow ketchup to be counted as a serving of vegetables because of the tomato content, (probably not thanks to the onion powder.) Going further with this idea, in 2011 Congress allowed reduced portions of tomato paste to count as a serving of vegetables, which effectively allowed pizza to be the equivalent of a serving of carrots (or any other non-fruit flora.)


My first grader said: Well, since kids this age have the instinct of a lawyer looking to follow the letter but not the spirit of a law, we immediately had to discuss a new label for our requests that she eat her… plants. “Greens” was out for being too narrow, “non-fruit plants” brought up the whole tomato problem again, and we obviously had to avoid suggestions like “things that are yucky.”

For now we’re going with the pleasant notion of eating a “whole rainbow” of foods to push some variety, although I’m curious to see how much eggplant or grapes she’s willing to eat to cover her purple obligations.

Source: Do vegetables really exist? by Henry Nicholls, BBC Earth

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