The tomato plant is thought to originate in Central and South America. When the Europeans came to the Americas they did not trust that the fruit of the plant could be eaten. They brought the plants back to Europe and used them as decorative curiosities. Records show that the Italians were the first to use the tomato as a culinary ingredient. Also, the smell of the plant put a lot of people off in Europe. However, by the 1600s it was seen as an aphrodisiac by the French and called ‘pomme d’amour’ (apple of love). It was believed to boost sexual desire. Since the 1800s the tomato is accepted as food and nowadays the tomato is well seen in every cuisine. Because of the increasing demand it is cultivated all over the world the whole year round. After a period when producers and consumers had lost sight of the taste of the tomato and put it on the back seat, now the focus on the great taste of the product is back. The largest producer of tomatoes in the world, with more than 50 million tons per year, is China.
The question that always surrounds the tomato is whether it can be classified as a fruit or a vegetable. This seems easily answered when we look at it from a botanical perspective: it is a fruit. The tomato belongs to the nightshade family. In contrast to the leaves and stem, however, the fruit of the plant is not poisonous to humans and can be eaten. Because the tomato bears the seeds for new plants, like apples and pears, it is called the fruit of the plant. It is classified as a berry. Originally, in Central and South America, the fruits of the plants were small, like cherry tomatoes and not as big as we know them to be now. Moreover, they were yellow and only by years of cultivation the red ones came into existence. Currently, there are possibly hundreds of varieties found at markets all over the world.
Even though the tomato botanically speaking is a fruit, it also has the classification of a culinary vegetable. It is not as sweet as most fruits and therefore is used in starters and main meals instead of desserts, where fruits are mostly used in. It is placed in the category of other fruits that are treated as vegetables in the culinary world, like avocados, eggplants, cucumbers and the sort. Thus, the way tomatoes are used in culinary practices, makes that the tomato is seen as a vegetable. Canning them, however, happens the way most fruits are canned, because of its high acidic content. By the end of the 19th century it was even the most canned fruit/vegetable.
In the United States the discussion about whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable had significant implications and led to legal implications in the late 19th century. Its status became important, because tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables and not fruits. In the end the tomato was declared a vegetable, using the definition that classifies vegetables by their use and since they were generally used with dinner instead of dessert the tomato was classified as a vegetable. This classification only counted for the paying of taxes and had no consequences for the botanical classification as a fruit.
Not only from a culinary perspective, but also nutritionally the tomato is classified as a vegetable. Tomatoes are full of vitamin C, zinc, calcium and iron. More importantly, they are full of lycopene. This is what gives the tomato the red colour. During the ripening process of the tomato the amount of lycopene increases. Lycopene is also one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. Antioxidants eliminate free radicals, that cause aging, but also help prevent several cancers and other diseases. The lycopene is released during the cooking process, when the cells are broken down, which makes a cooked tomato preferable over a raw one, because the effectiveness of lycopene is doubled. Olive oil, in small amounts, also intensifies its protective effect. Although cooked or processed tomatoes are more healthy, this does not always apply, since for example in ketchup a lot of sugar is added.
So in short we can conclude that the tomato is both a fruit ánd a vegetable, depending on the perspective one has. Botanically speaking it is a fruit, because it bears the seeds for new plants. From a culinary and nutritional perspective, however, the tomato is seen as a vegetable and in cooking processes is treated as such. But whether you think of the tomato as a fruit or a vegetable, the nutritional benefits stay the same. Eating them can have great benefits for your health and: they taste good!