Is pizza really a vegetable?

You may have heard that the U.S. Congress recently reaffirmed that pizza is a vegetable. Of course, the situation is more complicated than that. The U.S. Department of Agriculture—which regulates the school lunches served to millions of American children—proposed a new standard for school lunches. Specifically, they suggested reducing the amount of sodium in school lunches, and they also wanted to cut down on french fries and pizza. As it stands, two tablespoons of tomato paste (the amount that goes on a one-serving pizza) counts as a vegetable. The USDA suggested raising that to half a cup, which would mean that a one-serving pizza would no longer be a vegetable. Last week, Congress nixed these new regulations and reaffirmed that two tablespoons of tomato paste counts as a vegetable. (If you are old enough, this may remind you of President Ronald Reagan declaring ketchup to be a vegetable in 1982. The difference however is that Reagan never succeeded in implementing that suggestion.)

Depending on who you ask, a single food (or word, for that matter) may be classified in any number of ways. A scale performs a different function for a chef than for a personal trainer. One measures food, the other a person. Sometimes the difference in classification can be attributed to regional dialects. For example, depending on where you live in the United States, you may call a sweet carbonated beverage coke, pop or soda. (Read more about that fraught debate here.) In other cases, the common, or colloquial, definition does not match the technical, scientific definition.

The word “vegetable” comes from the Latin word vegere which meant “to be alive or active,” but it did not denote anything about food. For a long time the word “vegetable” was used synonymously with the word “plant.” As late as 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes called both trees and peaches “vegetables,” in his book The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.

What are vegetables now? Well, that depends on who you ask. Botanists, nutritionists, government agencies, and everyday people all hold contradictory opinions on the matter. Let’s take the example of two tablespoons of tomato sauce. We already know what Congress thinks of that, but what does the USDA recommended nutrition think of it? Tomatoes are part of the family of “Red or Orange Vegetables” which also includes squash, carrots and red peppers. Botanists would say that tomatoes are Solanum lycopersicum, and we technically eat the fruit of the plant. (Genetically speaking, the tomato is very closely related to the potato.) According to nutritionists anything from beets (which are roots) to spinach (which are leaves) to tomatoes (which are fruits) count as “vegetables.” They are typically rich in nutrients and low in fat and protein. The main difference between fruits and vegetables are that fruits are sweet (and higher in sugar) and vegetables are savory (and lower in sugar). Find out what makes a berry a berry here.

Today vegetables have gotten a bad rap. They are seen as flavorless and disgusting, even though there are some desserts (carrot cake for one) that are made with “vegetables.” Maybe the word is the problem.

What do you think counts as a vegetable? Does the word itself change your feelings toward it?

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