We’ve all been there, agonizing over the age-old question: “what makes a food a fruit, and what makes a food a vegetable?”
In some cases, it is easy enough to tell. No one is arguing that an apple is a vegetable, after all. But then there are the border-cases, the tomatoes, the eggplants, and, as it turns out, the carrots.
Is a carrot a fruit or a vegetable? Although there are a variety of ways to classify fruits and vegetables, and some debate which is best in the case of the carrot, the majority concedes that a carrot – even if it is bright orange in color – passes all the checks to safely be considered a vegetable.
But how can fruit and vegetables be categorized? What makes a food ‘a fruit’ or ‘a vegetable’? And why do some argue that a carrot is a vegetable? Here is our comprehensive guide to the question: is a carrot a fruit or a vegetable?
What is a ‘Fruit’ and What is a ‘Vegetable’?
Of course, to fully understand why a carrot is a vegetable, one must first understand what the terms ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetable’ refer to.
The first and most important differentiation is done by the botanical definition, which classifies fruits and vegetables by their anatomy, contents, and biological features.
What is a Fruit?
To be technical, fruit is botanically defined as the seed-bearing structure that develops from the mature ovary of a flowering plant. But in common usage the term is often reserved for:
- The succulent, edible fruits of woody plants: apples and pears, for instance.
- Melons, Watermelons, and Honeydew.
- Small fruits like berries.
What is a Vegetable?
Alternatively, a vegetable is simply defined as the edible portion of a plant. This also explains the wide variety of vegetables, which are categorized based on which part of their respective plant is edible.
A few examples include:
- Lettuce, spinach, and rocket are edible leaves.
- Celery and asparagus are edible stems.
- Parsnips, carrots, and beets are edible roots.
- Potatoes are edible tubers.
- Onion and garlic are edible bulbs.
- Broccoli and Cauliflower are edible flowers.
Thus, while fruit is the product of a plant’s mature ovary and therefore a product of the plant, a vegetable is (at least part of) the plant itself. By this botanical definition, a carrot is most definitely considered to be a vegetable.
What are the Other Differences Between Fruits and Vegetables?
Although these definitions generally apply, there is another (sometimes conflicting) way to classify fruits and vegetables.
This explains why some foods – like tomatoes, squash, pepper, and eggplant – are often left in limbo, sometimes considered a fruit, and sometimes considered a vegetable.
Where the botanical definition fails, the other method for classifying fruits and vegetables is known as the culinary method, which can further help shed light on the position of the carrot.
One of the most significant methods for classifying fruits and vegetables is how the food would be used in the kitchen.
There are a lot of foods which would ordinarily be botanically considered fruits, but are considered savory rather than sweet in the kitchen. For this reason, tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers are commonly considered vegetables, despite the fact that they are considered fruits by the botanical definition.
While many reading this article may see these distinctions as somewhat arbitrary, they have been extremely influential. For instance, in 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the culinary decision in the case Nix. V. Hedden. In that case, the Court was left to decide whether a tomato should be import taxed at the higher level (as a vegetable) or the lower level (as a fruit).
In their judgement, the Supreme Court concluded that the tomato was considered a vegetable by the “ordinary” definitions of the two: those which are put to the test in the kitchen. So, similarly, by the culinary definition, carrots are also considered vegetables.
How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Fruit and a Vegetable?
With these definitions and classifications in mind, it will be easy to come to your conclusions on which foods are fruits and which are vegetables in the abstract. But in real-world situations, it may sometimes be necessary to have some practical ways to distinguish one from the other.
These “tests” are common, but somewhat misleading, ways by which fruits and vegetables are categorized. If you have ever seen a carrot defined as a fruit, it has likely been categorized by one of the following:
The “Seed Test”
Going back to our botanical definitions of fruits and vegetables, we know that fruits are a seed-bearing structure, while vegetables are a part of a plant.
This makes the first test easy. To check whether a food is a fruit or a vegetable, simply check whether or not it contains seeds:
- Obvious fruits include apples, oranges and strawberries all contain visible seeds.
- Carrots, lettuce, and broccoli do not contain visible seeds.
Of course, we’ve already covered why the seed test is somewhat problematic. It still leaves us in the dark on some of the hardest to distinguish foods, like peppers and tomatoes. But since carrots do not contain seeds, by the “seed test” it can be deemed a vegetable.
The “Color Test”
Finally, some apply the ‘color test’, based on the notion that brightly colored foods are usually fruits, while the rest are usually vegetables. This is because fruits are multi-colored and bright, whereas many vegetables are far blander looking.
This is likely the most common reason that carrots are mistakenly referred to as fruits. However, the color test is quite misleading. Many foods are by all other methods considered vegetables yet are brightly colored. A few examples include:
- Spinach, broccoli, and brussels sprouts are all bright green.
- Beets which are a deep purple.
- Bell peppers can be yellow, red, or green.
Furthermore, carrots come in a variety of colors, with orange being a sign they are healthy and have been grown properly. For this reason, carrots can safely be referred to as vegetables – even though the best carrots are bright orange in color.
The Final Verdict
So, is a carrot a vegetable? As it turns out, there are several ways to classify fruits and vegetables, including:
- The botanical definition
- The culinary definition
- The “seed test”
- Their color
But by all definitions, it’s safe to say that a carrot – even if the best ones are bright orange – is most certainly a vegetable.