From an early age, we’re told to make sure we eat our vegetables. A recommendation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, disputed by some, is that people eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. However, there’s long been confusion around what is a vegetable versus a fruit. Tomatoes may be the defining case: When is a vegetable actually a fruit — or a root or a shoot?

University of Georgia Extension Vegetable Specialist Tim Coolong explains that the definition of a vegetable varies depending on how scientific you want to get. From a consumer perspective, the difference between a vegetable and a fruit is how the item is consumed.

“A vegetable is a food item used to complement other items in a main dish, while a fruit would generally be consumed by itself as a snack or as a dessert,” Coolong said.

From a research and grower perspective, the difference is more about how they are grown.

“Though there are exceptions, veggies tend to be managed as annual crops, while fruits are more often perennials grown on bushes or trees,” Coolong said. “A fruit specialist would work with peaches, apples and oranges, all of which require the same skill sets when growing them. And a vegetable specialist growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplant would grow those items similarly, even though all three of them are fruits, botanically speaking.”

Based on botanical classification, designation of some favorite foods may be surprising.

Anything that contains the seeds of the plant is a fruit, not a vegetable. This category includes items many consider to be vegetables, including squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and avocados.

Peas and beans are a bit trickier. If you just eat what’s inside the pod, you’re eating the seed. But, if you are also munching on the pod, then you’re eating the entire fruit.

Broccoli and cauliflower are both immature flowers of the plant. Cauliflower is very underdeveloped, which is why it’s so tightly bound up compared to broccoli. Artichokes are also flowers that have yet to bloom. The choke of the artichoke — the prickly, fuzzy stuff above the artichoke’s heart that you regret eating almost immediately — ultimately becomes the gorgeous purple flower of the artichoke plant.

Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale and chard are all made up of leaf tissue and, if left undisturbed, the plant will flower. Gardeners call this bolting. Asparagus are the shoots of the plant, and the tip would develop leaves that look like ferns if not harvested.

Carrots, radishes, beets and other root vegetables consist of a swollen tap root. Plants don’t just have one root, which is why — when you pull a carrot out of the ground — there are often lots of little hairy rootlets as well.

Sweet potatoes are tuberous roots, but white potatoes are shoot tubers, an extension of the plant with the capacity to create a new plant. That’s why store-bought potatoes will start sprouting on their own in your cupboards.

Onions are another anomaly. While they may be bulb shaped, they actually are compressed leaf tissue that grows underground. A bulb of garlic, however, is a true bulb similar to flower bulbs like tulips and daffodils. In a head of garlic, there is a thin layer of leaf tissue that surrounds each clove, each of which is a separate bulb.

“Vegetables” may be convoluted, but “fruits” may provide additional confusion.

Scientifically, the flesh of the strawberry is not the fruit. The fruits are the tiny seed-like things on the outside, embedded in the red flesh. Each one of those contains a seed. The delicious juicy flesh is an extension of the plant that holds the flower.

On raspberries and blackberries, all of the little spheres on the berry are separate fruits, scientifically known as drupes. So, a single raspberry is actually a cluster of drupes or fruits, and within each drupe is a seed.

Figs are a fleshy, inside-out flower. Which is why you never see a fig tree with a “traditional” flower on it. The fruit that is consumed is the flower, explaining why figs need to be pollinated by tiny wasps that crawl inside of the fig.

Identifying a tomato as a fruit is correct, but don’t let that interfere with children or acquaintances enjoying a serving of vegetables from your garden.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at

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