What is a vegetable?

Defining our terms

September 19, 2008

Let’s define “vegetables.” That may sound, um, fruitless — after all, who doesn’t know a vegetable when she sees one? But there can be confusion.

I posed the “what is a vegetable?” question to the folks at the Produce for Better Health Foundation — a nonprofit whose sole purpose, according to their website, is “to motivate people to eat more fruits and vegetables to improve public health.” PBH’s Jeanette Sukhu told me they get this question all the time. Here’s her response:

We accept the botanical definition that fruits have seeds, which means that technically, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant are fruits.
We also accept the ruling of the Supreme Court from 1883 (which is posted on our website in the frequently asked questions).
Salad means vegetables — or does it?
That ruling acknowledged that tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas, are “fruits of the vine.” However, in the common language of the people, they are vegetables because “they are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the” meal, and they are not generally consumed as dessert, like fruits.
So to answer your question, we count potatoes and beans as vegetables, but do not count tofu because while it is made from vegetables, it is not itself a vegetable.

I found the Produce for Better Health Foundation via the Centers for Disease Control’s fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov; the agency is apparently partnering with the nonprofit to get the word out about the connection between vegetables and good health.

But if you go to another governmental agency, the USDA, and look for guidance, you get this, which is rather oblique:

Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice counts as a member of the vegetable group. Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut up, or mashed.

Fortunately, the USDA also offers a list of what it considers to be vegetables, by category:

The USDA’s veg list

Dark green vegetables

  • bok choy
  • broccoli
  • collard greens
  • dark green leafy lettuce
  • kale
  • mesclun
  • mustard greens
  • romaine lettuce
  • spinach
  • turnip greens
  • watercress

Orange vegetables

  • acorn squash
  • butternut squash
  • carrots
  • Hubbard squash
  • pumpkin
  • sweet potatoes

Dry beans and peas

  • black beans
  • black-eyed peas
  • garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • kidney beans
  • lentils
  • lima beans (mature)
  • navy beans
  • pinto beans
  • soy beans
  • split peas
  • tofu (bean curd made from soybeans)
  • white beans

Starchy vegetables

  • corn
  • green peas
  • lima beans (green)
  • potatoes

Other vegetables

  • artichokes
  • asparagus
  • bean sprouts
  • beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • cucumbers
  • eggplant
  • green beans
  • green or red peppers
  • iceberg (head) lettuce
  • mushrooms
  • okra
  • onions
  • parsnips
  • tomatoes
  • tomato juice
  • vegetable juice
  • turnips
  • wax beans
  • zucchini

Tofu and potatoes are on the USDA list, which is good news for me. I like black beans, tofu, and, once in a while, potatoes, and find it handy to include them in my daily count.

Still, I decided to check one more source: the British government’s 5 A Day site. Here’s where it really got interesting. According to the Brits:

One portion of vegetables is, for example, 3 heaped tablespoonfuls of cooked carrots or peas or sweetcorn, or 1 cereal bowl of mixed salad. Beans and other pulse vegetables, such as kidney beans, lentils and chick peas, only count once a day, however much you eat. Potatoes don’t count towards the 5 A Day target because they are a “starchy” food. [Italics mine.]

So beans and tofu are OK once a day, but potatoes are out. Unless I’m in a pinch one day, and then I can use the USDA list and bake a potato. Relativism rules in this challenge.

And you get to decide on your own what you’ll do.

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