Vegetables Are a Social Construct

“Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?” You’ve probably heard this question all your life. As well as jokes about knowing not to put a tomato in a smoothie. But what makes a fruit a fruit and what makes a vegetable a vegetable? Well, a fruit is a botanical term, while vegetables are a social construct.

I’ll admit this is a departure from my usual blogging. So if you’re not here for commentary on human behavior, and would rather read about garden tips or urban chickens, I suggest you check out the blog.

If you are down for a bit of a nerdy dive into semantics, let’s explore why we call some fruits vegetables. Because the concept of vegetables is not based on any scientific or botanical definition, but rather societal agreement.

What Vegetables Are Technically Fruits?

“Fruit” is a botanical definition. A scientific classification for the part of a plant that holds the seed or seeds.

Parts of a fruit using an avocado as an example with arrows pointing out the peel, seed, and fleshy pulp

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, tomatoes are joined by cucumbers, corn and bean pods as fruits. Even un-shelled acorns and almonds are fruits! 

Some fruits masquerading as vegetables include:

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Cucumbers
  3. Eggplants
  4. Peppers
  5. Pumpkins
  6. Squashes
  7. Zucchinis
  8. Avocados

Yes, avocados! People in Mexico and the Philippines will be unsurprised, since they have delicious avocado desserts.

What Even Are Vegetables?

The broadest definition for vegetable is basically any part of a plant that we eat. That can be the stem, leaves, roots, fruit, seeds, or even flowers of the plant that we eat.

When you eat asparagus and kohlrabi, you are eating the stem of the plant. Spinach, collard greens, and lettuce are the leaves. Carrots and radishes are roots. Peas and beans are seeds.

And every time you take a bite of broccoli or artichokes, you’re eating flowers. How about that?

Fruits and Vegetables Venn Diagram. Broccoli and carrots are on the Culinary Vegetables side, Apples and Bananas are on the Botanical Fruit side, and Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cucumbers are in the middle since they belong in both categories

Maybe now it doesn’t feel so weird to say that certain vegetables are fruits. When it’s broken down, it’s much easier to see that vegetables are a social construct.

Why Do We Call Vegetables “Vegetables?”

The term “vegetable” is a culinary term, and isn’t based on any scientific or botanical criteria. It’s all just a big joke that we’ve been playing on ourselves for centuries.

According to some experts, the concept of vegetables has been created by humans. So the way we define and categorize vegetables is not based on any objective criteria, but rather on our own cultural beliefs and practices.

For instance, in 1893, the United States Supreme Court declared that tomatoes were vegetables, not fruits, for the purpose of taxation. So the controversial tomato, while botanically considered a fruit, is in fact a vegetable–at least legally.

This ruling set a precedent for other plant foods, and soon people were classifying all sorts of things as vegetables, even if they technically weren’t.

And some plants that are commonly eaten as vegetables, such as mushrooms and seaweed, are not technically vegetables at all. 

Plus, different cultures have different ideas about which foods count as vegetables, and even within a single culture, the definition of “vegetable” can be somewhat arbitrary. 

In some cases, a food might be considered a vegetable simply because it’s not a fruit or a grain.

I think, perhaps, as long as it’s not affecting our taxes, the question of whether a plant is a fruit or a vegetable needs to be discarded. A better question would be, “Is it delicious?”


The idea of vegetables being a social construct may seem absurd, but it highlights how much of our reality is shaped by societal norms and agreements. From language to food, we have collectively created and agreed upon certain concepts and definitions that shape our understanding of the world around us.

Vegetables are and will continue to be a social construct. As long as we continue to classify foods based on our own cultural and culinary traditions. 

I hope you have enjoyed this lighthearted poke at the idiosyncrasies of society! Sometimes we just need to have a laugh and not take life too seriously. 

If you enjoyed reading this, why not share it with your friends and have a giggle together?

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