According to botanists, there is no such thing as a vegetable.
Wolfgang Stuppy, a research leader in comparative plant and fungal biology at the U.K.’s world-renowned Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew & Wakehurst Place, told the BBC, “The term vegetable doesn’t exist in botanical terminology.”
But fruit? Yep, that’s recognized by botanists. Confused? Let us break it down for you.
What is a fruit?
If you ask a cook, a fruit is an edible part of plant that is usually sweet and sometimes sour. Lemons, apples, strawberries ― these are all considered fruits by almost everyone.
But if you ask a botanist, a fruit is defined as “an organ that contains seeds, protecting them as they develop and often aiding in their dispersal.” Biologically speaking, the fruit is a part of the plant that is vital for its survival. Its very purpose is to help the plant spread its seed, and its sweetness attracts animals who eat it the fruit (and seed) and excrete it out in another location.
That’s why tomatoes are technically fruit, even though we treat them like vegetables in our kitchens. And it’s why what we refer to as grains and nuts are botanically classified as fruits, too.
While there is some variation in what a botanist calls a fruit and what a cook calls a fruit, it gets even more confusing when it comes to vegetables.
What is a vegetable?
A vegetable is a little tricker to define. In the broadest sense, according to the dictionary, the term vegetable is used to define anything living that isn’t animal or mineral ― think the vegetable kingdom (which is another term for plant kingdom).
If you ask a cook, a vegetable is also a term used to define the parts of the plant that we eat― the plant matter on our plates such as salad, braised greens, carrots or potatoes.
But if you ask a botanist, they’ll tell you there’s no such thing as a vegetable. “The term vegetable has no meaning in botany,” Amy Litt, director of plant genomics and Cullman curator at The New York Botanical Garden explained to LiveScience.
Why? Because from a biological standpoint, what we call vegetables are really just parts of plants. So botanists just call them by their parts. Asparagus is the stalk of a plant. Broccoli is the flower of a plant. Kale is the leaves of a plant. Onions are the bulb of a plant. Carrots are the root of a plant. Tomatoes are the fruit of a plant.
Knowing this, can we still call certain foods vegetables?
Yes, because vegetables have a place in the kitchen. The usage of this word came into our language a few hundred years ago to refer to plant material that we eat that is not sweet like fruit, and it’s not going out of style any time soon.
Also, we are not botanists.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly classified an onion as a tuber.