When you think of fruit, apples, peaches and grapes might come to mind. But how about peppers? While they don’t closely resemble apples or watermelons, all hot peppers are actually fruits.
Botanists define fruits as seed-bearing structures on flowering plants. Chile peppers obviously house seeds and therefore classify as fruits. In fact, they’re berries, because they hold multiple seeds within one fleshy fruit.
To botanists, a berry is a fleshy fruit that has multiple seeds on the inside, embedded in the flesh of the ovary, such as a blueberry. Strangely to us, that makes all these other things berries to botanists: tomatoes, eggplants, grapes, persimmons and chile peppers.
It comes to life more when you take a look at many ornamental chile peppers like the Black Pearl. These chiles are shaped more like berries–a more consistent fruit-like appearance than other types of hot peppers.
Unlike “fruit,” the word “vegetable” has no botanical meaning and refers to any non-fruit part of a plant that humans consume, like the stem, leaf, or root.
Cultural and culinary conventions largely determine which foods are considered vegetables for everyday purposes. Hot peppers and other members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and eggplants, are savory fruits used as culinary vegetables and wouldn’t be standard additions to a fruit salad.
To confuse things even further, when nutritionists make dietary recommendations about fruits and vegetables, they tend to make their distinctions based on the sugar content of the foods, considering zucchini and tomatoes veggies because they are low in sugar.
Though hot peppers and cucumbers are fruits and rhubarb is a vegetable, that doesn’t mean I’ll be making a cucumber crumble or a rhubarb con carne . Many cultures do however, use the leaves of hot pepper plants, which are a little bitter but not spicy, in a variety of dishes. The preparation of a food doesn’t change based on whether it’s technically a fruit or a vegetable, but I think that learning the science behind our favorite foods is very interesting.
For example, if chile peppers are fruits, why are they so dramatically dissimilar to other fruits? Most fruit is predominantly sweet and tangy while chile peppers are fiery instead. The answer could be evolutionary. What’s the evolutionary advantage of a fleshy fruit? Nearby animals like to eat them and deposit the indigestible seeds somewhere far away from the original plant. I find it fascinating that evolutionary reasoning suggests that humans and other mammals were never meant to eat chili peppers at all. Capsaicin targets a mammalian pain receptor; as a result, humans are the only mammals known to eat hot peppers. Other species don’t seem to have an appreciation for spice as distinct from pain. However, birds do not have the same pain receptor and regularly eat hot peppers. This means that spicier plants deterred land-bound mammals, leaving more fruit for the more effective airborne consumers to eat. As a result, spicier plants reproduced better. This selection for spice is a boon for humans who delight in the heat of chile peppers, a real-life forbidden fruit both botanically and metaphorically.