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Are Tomatoes Fruits Or Vegetables?: The Supreme's Court 1893 Decision

1800s | May 15, 2019

A woman picks a tomato at a market. Source: (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

The tomato… is it a fruit or a vegetable? Ask a group of botanists and they will tell you that the tomato is a fruit, but ask many chefs and they will tell you that it is a vegetable. So, who is right? Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? Well, it's kind of both, but legally-speaking, it's a little more complicated than that. It turns out we can finally put this debate to rest. The Supreme Court ruled on the classification of the tomato back in 1893 in an obscure, yet monumental court case: Nix v. Hedden. The verdict? Well, let’s find out.

Tomatoes are vegetables, right? Source: (draxe.com)

The Tomato as a Vegetable

Those in favor of labelling tomatoes as vegetables point to the culinary uses of the tomato as their key piece of evidence. Vegetables, in a culinary definition, are less sweet than fruits. They are generally not used to make desserts, but are, instead, used to make main courses, salads, side dishes, and soups. Botanists, however, are less concerned with the taste of the product than they are with the part of the plant from which the product came. Vegetables are defined as edible plant parts. These can include roots and tubers (like carrots and potatoes), leaves (as in lettuce), flowers (like broccoli and artichokes), stalks (like celery), and seed pods (as in beans and peas). 

Tomatoes are fruit, right? Source: (latimes.com)

The Tomato as a Fruit

A fruit, on the other hand, is a part of the plant the produces a fleshy, protective surrounding for the plant’s seeds. By this definition, the tomato would be considered a fruit. However, when you apply the culinary definition, it doesn’t work. A tomato is not sweet and not used for desserts. From a cooking standpoint, it is used more like a vegetable. This was, at least, the argument that was at the heart of the 1893 Supreme Court Case, Nix Versus Hedden. 

President Chester A. Arthur inadvertently influenced the tomato's fruit versus vegetable debate. Source: (bloomberg.com)

It tarted with The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883

In 1883, the United States government passed a tariff imposing a tax on all vegetables being brought into the U.S. for sale and distribution. President Chester A. Arthur signed this tariff into law on March 3 or 1883. This tariff excluded fruits. 

John Nix was one of New York City's largest produce sellers. Source: (trueorbetter.com)

John Nix and his Fruit Company

John Nix, the founder of John Nix & Co. Fruit Commission, owned one of the largest produce companies in all of New York City. The company, which Nix started in 1839, shipped fresh fruits and vegetables into New York from warm-weather farms and orchards in Florida and Bermuda. Nix became quite wealthy as his company grew larger. But when the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, took effect, Nix stood to be hit in the pocketbook. 

As collector for the Port of New York, Edward L. Hedden wanted to collect taxes on imported tomatoes. Source: (wikivisually.com)

The Collector

As the collector for the Port of New York, it was the job of Edward L. Hedden to collect the tariff taxes on imported vegetables. Nix willingly paid the taxes on the vegetables that he imported but balked when Hedden demanded payment of taxes on tomatoes. He explained to Hedden that tomatoes, as a fruit, were exempt from the tax. Hedden disagreed. The conflict escalated into a court case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. 

The 1983 Supreme Court who were taxed with determining the fate of the tomato. Source: (battleofhomestead.org)

The Trial

The outcome of the trial rested on the correct definition of a fruit. Both sides argued in favor of their classification of the tomato. The definitions of both fruits and vegetables from three different dictionaries—the Imperial Dictionary, the Webster’s Dictionary, and the Worcester’s Dictionary—were entered as evidence. Nix’s lawyer had botany experts explain that tomatoes should be labeled as fruits because of their function in the plant itself. Hedden’s lawyers called in two long-time produce sellers to get their expert opinions. 

Justice Horace Gray. Source: (oyez.org)

The Verdict

After listening to the arguments from both sides, the Honorable Justice Horace Gray released his verdict. The tomato, he declared, was a vegetable. This decision, he explained, was based on the commonly-held definition and usage of the tomato, and not on the scientific one. Nix was ordered to pay back tariffs on his imported tomatoes. So, that's why you very likely think something completely wrong about tomatoes, but since it was common-thought at the time, eventually became a legal truth. Tomatoes are, legally, vegetables.

Tags: supreme court | tomatoes

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.