Tomatoes – When the Science Really Doesn’t Matter

So, there’s lately been some easy press over a funding bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where it has been claimed that pizza would be considered a vegetable.  As is the case with most media (certainly American media), that is a gross oversimplification.  Some points to make that are inconvenient to the current narrative.

U.S. school lunch nutrition standards have sucked for a long time.  While Jamie Oliver was successful in improving school lunches in his native U.K., it’s been a lot harder in the U.S.  The new bill isn’t a step back, it prevents progress that was set up through previous legislation.  Put another way, pizza won’t newly count as a vegetable (because of the tomato paste in the sauce), it sort of already does count as a vegetable.  The proposed new school lunch standards will not be allowed to move forward, at least for the rest of this fiscal year.

To be fair, Oliver is making progress, as he noted Thursday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live.  He also describes the recent setback and notes a text service he set up (text Jamie to 90975) to quickly get the contact information for your representatives and how to approach them about the bill.

He remains convinced we’re not completely screwed.  He’s trying to mobilize opposition.

(The McDonalds stuff refers to a separate bit during the program, which was celebrating National UnFriend Day)

Tomato paste would still count as a vegetable even under the proposed new rules.

The adjustment in the tomato paste (and puree) rules would be how they would count as servings of vegetables, not whether or not they would be counted as such.  Currently they are credited with the volume of their whole-vegetable equivalent.  Most other fruits pastes and purees are credited with their actual volume.  The new rule would treat nearly all fruit and vegetable products the same in terms of counting servings – actual volume.  The exceptions would be leafy greens and dried fruits.

Tomatoes aren’t, strictly speaking, vegetables.

Botanically speaking, like many other things we consider vegetables, they are fruits.  They contain the seeds of the flowering plants they come from.  Vegetables, however, don’t have a strict scientific definition to distinguish them from fruits.  In common discussions people usually distinguish fruits and vegetables on the basis of sweetness.  So while tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers are all fruits, since they aren’t sweet, we typically don’t think of them that way.

Not everyone was trying to roll back the tomato rules

More significant changes in the school lunch regulations had to do with lowering the amount of sodium, reducing the amount of potatoes served, encouraging the serving of reduced-fat milk, and increasing the use of whole grains.  Earlier reporting on the new rules suggests that politicians from potato-producing states are much more organized on these issues.  They certainly have better arguments (different preparation would address many health concerns) than the frozen food people.  They are complaining that adding more tomato paste to provide the same vegetable equivalent under the new rules would render their products inedible.

The recent argument over tomatoes is not the first time the non-sweet fruit has been an issue for some part of government.  In the 1980s there was consideration of classifying ketchup/catsup and pickle relish as vegetables rather than condiments.  The public reaction prompted the Reagan Administration to not implement that change.  In the last decade of the 19th century, the Supreme Court weighed in on tomatoes in Nix v. Hadden (149 U.S. 304 (1893)).  A dispute in New York about whether or not tomatoes qualified as vegetables under the Tariff Act of 1883, the case tried to claim that the botanical classification of a tomato should determine whether tomatoes were subject to a tariff.  The Supreme Court disagreed.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

As it happens, the Court found precedent in a case involving whether beans were seeds or not, for the purposes of taxation.  And nearly 120 years later, what we call a tomato still seems to matter.