May 13, 2024 - Health

Axios Finish Line: Eat your veggies — or whatever you call them

Illustration of a sliced tomato with a question mark in the middle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some people say a tomato is a fruit while others say it's a vegetable — and then there are people who say there actually is no such thing as a vegetable. That could all be correct.

Why it matters: Technical "vegetable" definitions can confuse people who are trying to eat well.

The distinction between fruits and vegetables "is largely semantic, and has different significance whether you're thinking like a botanist, a chef or a nutritionist," food writer and educator Pamela Vachon tells Axios.

  • Botanists might not even use the word "vegetable" at all, and instead focus on how the plant grows and plant parts (including the root, leaves and fruit).
  • Nutritionists and chefs typically classify produce based on nutrients and taste (sweet vs. savory).

Between the lines: Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and avocados — and other foods with fleshy plant parts that surround their seeds — are typically considered fruits by botanists, but vegetables by nutritionists and chefs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has national recommendations for healthy eating, goes the nutritionist/chef route: It considers savory produce vegetables and sweet/tart ones fruit.

  • USDA divides veggies into five groups based on their nutrients, including an "other" category that includes avocados and cucumbers, and a "red and orange" vegetable group that includes sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
  • Flashback: The USDA used to encourage the Food Pyramid way of eating, but now suggests that people eat fruit and veggies as half of their meal plate.

Zoom out: It's not necessary to categorize the produce you're eating as a fruit or a vegetable in order to eat well, and obsessing over things like the amount of natural sugars in produce is "splitting hairs," dietitian and chef Laura Geraty tells Axios. (For the record, she usually considers a tomato a vegetable.)

  • Something else to avoid: Eating too much of any one particular food, even if it's a "vegetable," because that can give you "too much of some nutrients [and] not enough of others."
  • Instead, Geraty and other experts recommend eating a variety of produce — from leafy greens to citrus — in a rainbow of colors and prepared in different ways.
  • For example, eating a tomato with olive oil unlocks a different nutrient profile than eating a roasted tomato. "If you're eating it in a way that tastes very good," it's often a more "nutritionally rich experience."

Carly's thought bubble: A pregnancy app I've been using has been comparing my growing baby to a new fruit each week, and some of the suggested "fruits" made me wonder if they were actually "vegetables." So, here we are.

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