Sunday, September 24, 2023

Tomatoes: When Science And The Law Are In Direct Conflict

A historical account of when science and law disagreed about tomatoes.

“Is tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”

If your little one is reprimanded by her botany teacher for the wrong answer, console your girl that she has the Supreme Court of the United States of America standing by her side.

The Tariff Act

In 1883, President Arthur of the USA signed a Tariff Act, that decreed that all the vegetables, but not the fruits, imported into the USA would have to pay import duty.

This had severe consequences. Not only tomatoes but also cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplants, avocados, and green beans are considered vegetables. Should their importers be paying the levy?

The Controversy

In those days, the John Nix and Company of New York was a big importer of tomatoes. The company did not pay any import duty knowing perfectly well that a tomato is a fruit.

‘Nothing doing’, said the Port of New York Collector. He insisted that all tomato importers must pay the import tax.

With millions of dollars at stake, a court battle went to the Supreme Court of the USA. In 1892, its judges were asked to give a verdict on this ‘school botany’ question: is tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

The Debate

There was more confusion in the court.

The John Nix and Company, who had filed the case, showed that Worcester’s dictionary defined potato, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, and bean as fruits. Since tomato was similar, it was a fruit, too.

The Port of New York fought back. Their counsels produced Webster’s dictionary, which claimed that the eggplant, cucumber, pepper, and pea were vegetables. And tomato was akin to them.

The Verdict

After a year of debate and deliberation, the eminent judges finally wrote their verdict, “Tomatoes are eaten in the main course of dinner and not as a dessert. So we rule that the tomato is a vegetable, and the import duty must be paid on it.”

The Science

Fruits and vegetables come from different parts of the plants.

  • Fruits originate from the flowers or flowering parts of the plant. Botanically speaking, a fruit is the fleshy or dry ripened ovary of a flowering plant. They may contain a seed or seeds.
  • Vegetables, on the other hand, are the edible parts of a plant, such as leaves or roots.

Cucumbers, almonds, bean seed pods, and corn grains are fruits technically. Your child was correctly told by her botany teacher that a tomato is a fruit because it has seeds and grows from a flower.

So what would your stand be: In favour of science or for law?

The Wisdom

As it is famously said,

Knowledge is to know that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is to know that you should not put it in your dessert.

Most of the information in this article is taken from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. The book discusses a thousand such preventive health tidbits. It covers twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also explains how to select and store and who should avoid them. Some of the superfoods are tomatoes, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, cinnamon, flax seeds, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).

To Read More

First Published on: 29th July 2023
Image Credit: Mauro Borghesi from Pixabay


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