When you think of fruit, apples, peaches, or grapes might come to mind. But how about peppers? While they don’t closely resemble oranges or watermelons, all hot peppers are actually fruits. Botanists define fruit as the seed-bearing structures on flowering plants.
Chile peppers are the product of blooming flowers. Cutting one open demonstrates they obviously house seeds. Therefore, peppers classify as fruit.
In fact, they’re berries. This is because they hold multiple seeds within one fleshy fruit. To botanists, a berry is a fleshy fruit that has numerous seeds on the inside, embedded in the flesh of the ovary, such as a blueberry. Perhaps strangely to us, that makes all these other things berries, too: tomatoes, eggplants, grapes, persimmons, and chile peppers. It’s a little easier to make the connection when you take a look at some 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. This could be the stem, leaf, root, or nearly anything.
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 food, considering zucchini and tomatoes veggies because they are lower 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 use the leaves of hot pepper plants, which are a little bitter but not spicy, in a variety of dishes. The preparation of a meal doesn’t change based on whether it’s technically a fruit or a vegetable, but I think that learning the science behind our favorite food 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 (peppers, in this case) for the unaffected airborne consumers to eat.
As a result, spicier plants had more chances to reproduce. This selection for spice is a boon for humans who delight in the heat of chile peppers. You could consider them a real-life forbidden fruit– both botanically and metaphorically.