Most people know that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but not as many are familiar with the differences between them.
In terms of structure, taste and nutrition, there are many distinctions between fruits and vegetables.
This article will take a closer look at the differences between fruits and vegetables, and the health benefits they can provide.
The Difference Between Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are classified from both a botanical and culinary standpoint.
Botanically, fruits and vegetables are classified depending on which part of the plant they come from.
A fruit develops from the flower of a plant, while the other parts of the plant are categorized as vegetables.
Fruits contain seeds, while vegetables can consist of roots, stems and leaves (1).
From a culinary perspective, fruits and vegetables are classified based on taste. Fruits generally have a sweet or tart flavor and can be used in desserts, snacks or juices.
Vegetables have a more mild or savory taste and are usually eaten as part of a side dish or main course.
Summary: Botanically, fruits contain seeds and come from the flower of a plant, while the rest of the plant is considered a vegetable. In cooking, fruits are considered to be sweet while vegetables are more savory.
Fruits Often Mistaken for Vegetables
You probably have a pretty good concept of which foods are considered fruits and which are considered vegetables, at least in culinary terms.
However, there are several plants that are technically fruits, though they’re often classified as vegetables because of their taste.
Tomatoes are the most well-known and controversial example of this.
In 1893, the US Supreme Court actually ruled that tomatoes should be classified as vegetables rather than fruits under US customs regulations (2).
Botanically speaking, tomatoes fit the definition of a fruit. However, they’re still commonly referred to as vegetables because of their flavor profile.
Some other common examples of fruits that are mistaken for vegetables include (1):
- Winter squash
- Pea pods
Summary: There are many fruits that are often referred to as vegetables, including tomatoes, avocados and cucumbers.
Vegetables With a Sweeter Flavor
Though there are many fruits that are mistaken for vegetables, there are very few vegetables that are considered fruits, if any.
However, some vegetable varieties have a naturally sweeter flavor than most other vegetables and are used similarly to fruits in desserts, pies and baked goods.
Rhubarb pie, for example, is a popular dessert with a strong tart taste.
Though rhubarb is commonly considered a fruit, it’s technically a vegetable since it comes from the stalk of the plant (1).
Sweet potato pie is another dessert that is a traditional part of Thanksgiving in the United States. Despite their sweet flavor, sweet potatoes are actually a type of root vegetable, not a fruit.
Similarly, candied yams are a baked dish containing yams, another type of edible tuber. Other vegetables with a naturally sweeter flavor include beets, carrots, rutabagas and turnips.
Summary: Some vegetables have a sweet flavor and may be used in baked goods and desserts. Examples include rhubarb and sweet potatoes.
How Do Fruits and Vegetables Compare Nutritionally?
Fruits and vegetables have a lot of similarities in terms of nutrition.
Both are high in fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant compounds.
Fruits and vegetables are also naturally low in sodium and fat (3).
As you might expect given their sweet taste, fruits tend to have a higher amount of natural sugar and calories compared to most varieties of vegetables.
Compared to vegetables, some types of fruits may also contain more fiber per gram. The fiber content per 100 grams for fruit ranges from 2–15 grams, while leafy vegetables supply 1.2–4 grams of fiber for the same weight (3).
The water content is also highly variable. Leafy vegetables may be composed of 84–95% water, while fruits contain slightly less, with between 61–89% (3).
There are some nutrient differences among different categories of fruits and vegetables, as well. Here are few nutrition highlights:
- Tubers: Rich in fiber, plus a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, potassium and B vitamins (6).
- Citrus fruits: High in vitamin C, beta-carotene, folate and antioxidants that could offer protection against degenerative disease (7).
- Cruciferous vegetables: Contain glucosinolates, a group of compounds that has been linked to the prevention of cancer (8, 9).
- Berries: Full of anthocyanins, anti-inflammatory compounds that have been studied for their ability to reduce oxidative stress and promote heart health (10).
- Leafy greens: A good source of carotenoids like lutein, which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer (11, 12).
Including a good mix of fruits and vegetables in your diet can ensure you’re getting a diverse range of nutrients.
Summary: Fruit is higher in sugar and calories than vegetables, but both fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Specific types of fruits and vegetables provide different nutrients.
Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables
There is a good amount of research documenting the many benefits of fruit and vegetable intake on health.
One study even found that eating more than three servings per day slashed the risk of heart disease by 70% (16).
Because fruits and vegetables are low in calories but high in fiber, they could even help keep your weight under control.
One study followed 133,000 people over a 24-year span. It showed that when people increased their intake of fruits and non-starchy vegetables, their weight tended to decrease (17).
Increasing your fiber intake through fruits and vegetables may even reduce your risk of cancer. Multiple studies have found that higher fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer (18, 19).
Finally, fruit and vegetable intake may benefit your blood sugar. The fiber from these foods slows the absorption of sugar, which can keep blood sugar levels steady.
One study showed that an increase in fruit and vegetable intake can actually lead to a reduction in the development of diabetes (20).
Note that these results applied to fruits and vegetables, but not fruit juice. Fruit juice provides a concentrated dose of the vitamins, minerals and sugars found in fruit, but without the fiber and the health benefits that come with it.
Summary: Eating enough fruits and vegetables can decrease your risk of heart disease and cancer while controlling your weight and blood sugar.
The Bottom Line
Botanically, there is a distinct difference between fruits and vegetables.
However, they both come with an impressive set of nutrients and health benefits, from decreasing your risk of chronic disease to slimming your waistline.
In the end, the classification of fruits and vegetables isn’t as important as eating a variety of both to take advantage of the diverse nutrients they provide.