Editorial: Fruit versus vegetable


Question: Is it a fruit or vegetable?  

Portion Control Plate

Portion Control Plate

One of the great debates around the crisper is all about whether the contents are fruits or vegetables.  Confusion on this topic has no bounds.  In high school and middle school, I received two different answers from two health teachers.  College and medical school did not add any further clarity.  In fact, throughout my education, the more I asked experts and scientists, the more different answers I got.

So what is a vegetable?  Technically, vegetables are certain parts of plants that are consumed by humans is food as a part of our meals[1].  In other words, vegetables are the bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots, seeds, stalks or stems, and tubers.  From a biologic stance, vegetables are the parts of a plant that the reproductive parts.  This means that fruit is a type of vegetable.  In the culture, culinary, and nutritional sciences the definition is much more capricious.  

What is a fruit?  In biology and botany, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant.    By this definition, seed containing “vegetables” like squash, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and peppers would all be fruits.  Clearly, our dietary guidelines do not consider these fruit.  Scientifically, these are fruits based on the definition.  

So what about a mushroom?    There are items we eat do not clearly fit in a particular label.  Choosemyplate.gov[2], labels mushrooms as an “other vegetable.”  Scientifically, mushrooms are not a vegetable.  Mushrooms are a fungus they grow off of dead plant material.  They are not the part of a plant, but if you want to stretch reality, you could argue the mushroom was once a plant since the spore is growing on a dead plant.  I would argue that a mushroom has features similar to beans or legumes if you’re talking purely nutritional value.


Fruits and vegetables at market

Fruits and vegetables at a farmers market

So what the heck is corn?  Corn is the seed’s so technically it would be a fruity vegetable, but corn has very little in common nutritionally with either vegetables or fruits.  I would argue that corn is a grain.  It has more in common with wheat, oats, and barley than it does with traditional fruits and vegetables.  Sure, it is a plant part, but the nutrition is the key when categorizing corn as a grain instead of a vegetable.  A grain is defined as the harvested dry seeds or fruit of a cereal grass[3],  So you can quickly see why corn is a grain and not a vegetable. 

Is a potato a vegetable?  Yes, by definition, a potato is a vegetable, but it is high in starch and thus carbohydrates.    Per unit weight, a potato is lower in nutritional value than the remainder the vegetables and very high in carbohydrates.  With spinach, you can eat twice the amount of raw spinach without eating too many calories.  The same is not true for the “starchy” vegetables like potatoes.  For this reason, I try to avoid large amounts of potatoes because a small increase can add a lot of calories. 

 I tend to define foods based on their nutritional value.  I do not get stuck on the labels “fruits” and “vegetables”.  I suggest you review their nutritional value and choose either a fruit or a vegetable that is lower in calories and lower in starch if you’re trying to lose weight.  Arguing whether a particular fruit or vegetable is a fruit or a vegetable is pointless.  For this reason, I like the new “my plate” from the US Department of Agriculture because instead of focusing in on food groups, it focuses in on the nutritional value of foods.  Sure, it still contains fruits and vegetables is two separate groups, but it also moves beans or legumes into the protein group.   Vegetables are further subdivided into dark green, red and orange, beans and peas(protein), starchy, and other vegetables.   It is not perfect, but the characterization is better than lumping all the vegetables together.

  The bottom line: You need the fruits and vegetables are full of fiber to keep you full all day long, but be choosy at which ones.  I would not focus in on food groups as much as I would focus on the nutritional value of the food you are consuming.  If the food is high in carbohydrates, starch, and sugar and low in fiber, I would avoid it.


“Vegetable,” Wikipedia, 28-Feb-2018. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetable. [Accessed: 28-Feb-2018]
“All about the Vegetable Group,” Choose MyPlate, 12-Feb-2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/vegetables. [Accessed: 01-Mar-2018]
“Please settle a dispute. Is sweet corn a vegetable or a grain? What is the difference? How about field corn? – eXtension,” Extension, 01-Mar-2018. [Online]. Available: http://articles.extension.org/pages/36971/please-settle-a-dispute-is-sweet-corn-a-vegetable-or-a-grain-what-is-the-difference-how-about-field-. [Accessed: 01-Mar-2018]
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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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