By Brandie Piper
To-may-to? To-mah-to? Pronunciation of tomato isn’t the only thing that’s been debated over the years. Although it’s botanically a fruit, an 1893 United States Supreme Court ruling concerning whether a tomato may be classified as a vegetable put an end to a years-long dispute between four tomato importers and the Port of New York.
So why did the Supreme Court get involved in an argument over tomatoes? John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix protested the port’s decision to classify the tomato as a vegetable, making it subject to the Tariff of 1883, which imposed a tax on “vegetables in their natural state, or in salt or brine, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act, ten per centum ad valorem.” Fruits were not subject to an import tax, so the Nixes wanted the tomato to be re-classified as a fruit, and taxes they paid to be returned.
At trial in a lower court, the definitions of several fruits and vegetables were read from three dictionaries, and witnesses who sold fruits and vegetables were called to testify to add value to the dictionary definitions.
Eventually, the justices of the Supreme Court decided in Nix v. Hedden that for import purposes, tomatoes are vegetables because they are typically eaten with, before, or after the main dinner course, and not as dessert, like fruit.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans eat about 88 pounds of tomatoes every year, which is a good thing because tomatoes can part of a balanced meal. The USDA recommends adults eat at least 2 cups of vegetables daily. For more information about the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.