I know many of you are probably thinking, “Duh, it’s a fruit!”, but you might be surprised to learn that many people classify it as a vegetable. Just ask the folks in Oklahoma, where watermelon is the official state vegetable. Being the fact finder that I am, I did some digging to get to the bottom of this dilemma.
Something that tastes that sweet and delicious has to be a fruit, right?
Actually, no, but we’ll get back to that later. The distinction between fruit and vegetable goes beyond our taste buds and often has more to do with specific botanical classifications.
But it’s a type of melon, and other melons, like honeydew melons and cantaloupes, are fruits, so doesn’t that make the watermelon a fruit?
It’s true that watermelon and other melons like the honeydew and cantaloupe (which are fruits) are in the Cucurbitaceae family, but the watermelon is in the Citrullus genus, which is an important distinction between the two types of produce.
This is a lot of scientific stuff. What’s the technical definition of a “fruit”?
Good question. The dictionary defines “fruit” as “the ripened ovary (pistil) of a seed plant and its contents which includes the seeds.” This includes things like apples, oranges and cherries. These are ripened ovaries that include seeds of the plant that bore them. A broader definition of a fruit is anything that contains seeds.
Just like watermelons! Problem solved!
Not quite. Under that definition, squash and green beans are fruits, even though most people would consider them vegetables. And don’t bother reading the definition of a “vegetable” because you won’t find much clarification there.
Great. So what’s the definition of a “vegetable?”
Our vague friend, the dictionary, defines vegetable as “anything made or obtained from plants.” Basically, that means all fruits are also vegetables.
So much for consulting the dictionary for clarification. Who makes these rules and why are they trying to confuse us?
The “rules” over what is or is not a vegetable are not set in stone and are often open to subjective interpretation. In many cases, the distinction is made based on how the produce is used and how it tastes. This is referred to as a culinary distinction.
For example, using culinary distinctions (related to our first question about taste), things that are low in fructose (i.e. sugar) and have a savory taste are considered vegetables, and things that are sweeter are considered fruits. To further clarify the vegetable family, most people consider vegetables to be the leaves, stems, stalks and roots of certain plants, which helps to define why celery, carrots, lettuce and onions are all, unequivocally, vegetables.
So, from a culinary perspective, sweet things are fruits and not-sweet things are vegetables?
Essentially. Not to get sidetracked, but the fact that fruits have seeds (botanically speaking) and are sweet (culinarily speaking) is an important part of the biological process. The sweet aspect of fruit encourages many animals to eat it, and when they relieve themselves later, they spread the seeds along with some built-in fertilizer.
That’s what the deer said when he discovered the apple orchard. And not to throw you a curveball, but it should also be noted that some things can be both fruits and vegetables.
That doesn’t sound quite right.
It’s true. Bell peppers and tomatoes are considered vegetables because they’re savory and low in fructose, even though they have seeds, which technically makes them fruits.
In a botanical or scientific sense, pumpkins, cucumbers and squash are all fruits because they have seeds. However, in a culinary sense, these items are all vegetables. Therefore, they’re both!
You can call them that if you want, but people might look at you funny.
In some cases, the distinction between fruit and vegetable has even been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden. Under U.S. tariff laws back then, imported vegetables were taxed, but imported fruit was not. It wasn’t long before a few angry tomato importers (Nix) got tired of paying taxes on what was, botanically, a fruit and took their case to court. The high court eventually ruled in favor of the tax collector (Hedden) and classified the tomato as a vegetable… at least for tax purposes.
It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? So is that why watermelons are considered vegetables?
No. Some of the distinction comes from the USDA, which decided that since watermelon is planted from seeds, harvested and then cleared from the field like other vegetables, then it should be classified as a vegetable. The USDA strengthened this position by pointing out that watermelon is grown as a vegetable crop using vegetable production systems, but I won’t get into those details here.
And so, the mystery over whether watermelon is a fruit or a vegetable is solved!
If you say so.
Actually, the USDA says so, and they’re a pretty smart group of people. The bottom line is this: The difference between fruits and vegetables often overlap and, in many cases, come down to cultural distinctions. And no matter what you call it, nothing changes the fact that watermelon is one of the best things Mother Nature ever produced.
At least we agree on something!