Top | The Vegetable Challenge

What is a vegetable?

(post, Kim Carlson)

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:

bq. We accept the botanical definition that fruits have seeds, which means that technically, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant are fruits.

bq. We also accept the ruling of the Supreme Court from 1883 (which is posted on our website in the frequently asked questions).

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Salad means vegetables — or does it?"]

bq. 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.
bq. 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; 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:

bq. 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:

h3. The USDA's veg list

Dark green vegetables

list(compact smalltext).
 bok choy
 collard greens
 dark green leafy lettuce
 mustard greens
 romaine lettuce
 turnip greens

Orange vegetables

list(compact smalltext).
 acorn squash
 butternut squash
 Hubbard squash
 sweet potatoes

Dry beans and peas

list(compact smalltext).
 black beans
 black-eyed peas
 garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
 kidney beans
 lima beans (mature)
 navy beans
 pinto beans
 soy beans
 split peas
 tofu (bean curd made from soybeans)
 white beans

Starchy vegetables

list(compact smalltext).
 green peas
 lima beans (green)
Other vegetables

list(compact smalltext).
 bean sprouts
 Brussels sprouts
 green beans
 green or red peppers
 iceberg (head) lettuce
 tomato juice
 vegetable juice
 wax beans

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:

bq. 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.

reference-image, l