Spurred by a well meaning occupational therapy student working in the classrooms today who announced to the children that a pumpkin was a vegetable because, “you have to cook vegetables before you eat them,” I embarked on a journey to set straight for myself , once and for all, what differentiates fruits from veggies.  Because she (the student) sure didn’t.  Going from her definition, carrots, lettuce, spinach, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and snowpeas aren’t vegetables.  Or maybe they are sometimes, like when you cook them.   But then, are apples cooked in a pie vegetables?  Right. 

So I went back to the office, having washed the pumpkin gook off my arm hair as best I could, we consulted Ye Olde Internet, which revealed at least three different definitions to help distinguish betwixt the two. 

1) Botanical. 

This is the argument I’ve long heard for the tomato’s being a fruit.  And I will agree with the scientists out there — the tomato is the fruit of its plant.  The product of the flower of the plant (i.e., the  ripened ovary — can you see why we don’t do this definition in preschool? or 7th grade?) is indeed the fruit of it.  And, having come from the flower, many of these fruit have seeds.  Hence that inconclusive definition that if it has seeds, it’s a fruit.  Because are there not fruit, pure and simple, which have no seeds?  Like our friend the banana, and all of the lovely seedless produce we’ve grown to love: grapes, clementines, watermelon.  If a child is taught this distinction, methinks he’ll be mightily confused. Especially when he learns about women’s anatomy. Conversely, if a specimen of produce comes from a different part of the plant — the stem, the leaf, the root, or the stalk — it is a vegetable.  So, spinach (leaves), celery (stalk), potato (root), carrot (root), lettuce (leaves), or dandelion (stem) are all veggies.  Are herbs veggies, too?  What’s their definition? 

So this means that strawberries, green beans, pumpkins, squash, melons, cauliflower, and tomatoes are all fruit.  Are you prepared for that?  Can you honestly think of a cauliflower as a fruit?  If you can’t, then stop calling the tomato one. Keep it consistent, folks.

2) Gustatory.

Yes, I’m breaking out the big words for yeh.  This is my favorite definition, because this is how I’ve always classified produce, by my own experience with it.  If it’s sweet, it’s a fruit; if it’s savory, it’s a vegetable.  If it’s even important for children to learn how to classify fruits and vege, then this is how they should learn to do so, by their own experiences.  Of course, we have our problems here.  Mr. Apron maintains that grape and cherry tomatoes are sweet, which is why he loves them so, yet all other varieties are not.  Durian, the dreaded stinky fruit, is reported to taste sweet, but I never got past the smell of decomposing chicken carcasses to find out.  Red peppers are sweet, but green ones are savory.  And they’re the same plant. 

3.  Culinary/grocery store/food pyramid

This is somewhat of a construct of preparation and use, and is how they’re categorized for dietary bullshit.  So, if a tomato is a “fruit” by definition #1 (why people chose to single out this poor berry, I have no idea), it is always prepared as a vegetable, or with vegetables — on a pizza, in a sauce, enrobing french fries, in chili, in stew, in ratatouille.  And that somehow makes it a vegetable, by association.  I think.  But, in strawberry rhubarb pie, does the strawberry make the rhubarb a fruit?  Or does the rhubarb make the strawberry a vegetable?  If rhubarb is able to maintain its vegetableness in pie, next to a strawberry, why does tomato lose its identity when cooked next to a pepper? (Which is actually “a fruit” according to definition #1.)  I’m still struggling to wrap my head around this one, but it seems to be based on marketing, cooking, and the USDA.  Which has conveniently bumped potatoes and other root veggies (by definition #1 and #2) into the starch/bread category.  Where does poor corn go?  It’s a starch, but it is totally a grain.  So by #1 it’s a grain, by #2 it’s a veggie, and by #3 it’s, um, sometimes a veggie and sometimes a starch, depending on its neighbors.  The USDA seems to lump produce by its nutritional value, so things high in carbs become starches, things high in sugar become fruit, and things, um, that are left over (and are often colorful and have whatever yummy antioxidants are hip right now), and which children do not like to eat, are all called vegetables. 

Which brings us to definition #4

4. What’s a vegetable?  Something a child won’t eat.  What’s a fruit?  Everything else. 

It’s all bullshit anyway.  One website I found said the entire construct of fruit vs. veggie was contrived, and that there probably isn’t any natural class called “vegetable” anyway.  Are we really trying to teach kids to distinguish fruits and vegetables when a) they can’t tell their play-doh from their peer’s, and b) we as adults can’t meaningfully tell the difference anyway, much less teach it?  That’s not what “nutrition” is at a preschool age; nutrition is eating a variety of healthy foods, trying new things, and using a tissue instead of your sleeve.  It’s not developmentally appropriate to address protein, starch, carbs, fat, and sugar yet — it’s just silly at that age.  And as we keep discovering new micronutrients that are supposedly essential, I question whether it’s appropriate at any age.