We’ve all been wondering, “Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?” (Correct answer: Yes, tomatoes are a fruit, but you still shouldn’t put tomatoes in a fruit salad.) Now we’re here with a whole new botanical question you didn’t even know existed: Is corn a fruit, vegetable, or grain?
The answer to this question is more technical than you might think. You need to learn a little bit of maize biology to fully understand it. So we start.
A corn stalk comes out of several spikelets (the female parts of the plant) and a tassel (the male part, as you can imagine). The tassel produces pollen, the sperm of the plant world. Before the spikelets look like juicy cobs covered with grueling grains, they actually stand in the form of a rigid cylinder covered with thousands of unfertilized ovules. From each of these ovules emerges a tassel that reaches and crosses the outer leaves, trying to catch a bit of pollen with its tiny sticky hairs. If this tuft catches pollen, it grows into a grass tube and allows male genes to travel to the ovule and fertilize it. This fertilized ovule grows into a single seed.
In order for a corn ear to form, this process needs to be repeated 400-600 times. This also explains why some cobs sometimes have vacancies; sometimes not every ovule seed is fertilized.
Are you still here? Beautiful. Here is the significance of all this.
We separate fruits and vegetables according to the parts of the plant we eat. Marvin Pritts, a horticultural researcher and professor at Cornell University, explains that if we eat the part of the plant that comes from the ovule or other reproductive tissue, we call it a fruit. We call everything else a vegetable. “Corn is a seed obtained from the flower/sprout of the corn plant,” he says. “So it is technically a fruit.”
More precisely, maize is a wheat-like fruit, a type of fruit in which the pod is tightly fused with the seed membrane (the fleshy part, as in peach). This means that the corns do not contain a significant amount of fleshy layers and dry out nicely. You might know wheatish fruits better by their common name: We’re talking about grains.
Therefore, cereals are also a kind of fruit. Corn, then, is both a grain and a fruit, just like wheat, millet, and oats.
This result brings us back to the last part of that question: Is corn a vegetable? If we talk in terms of plant science and science, the answer is no. But here’s the thing: The common term “vegetable” is actually meaningless because it’s completely arbitrary.
What do you think of when you picture a vegetable? Probably some of what you think is true; You’re thinking of lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. But many of them are probably wrong. We often see vegetables as sweet or not very juicy products. For most of us, a fruit is something you can eat straight. You can pluck a peach or an apple and eat it. You probably wouldn’t bite your teeth straight into a tomato (But why not? We eat them raw in slices!). Similarly, you should at least cook the corn before you bite it into a hart. You probably add some salt and butter to your preference.
But if you want to think technically, unfortunately that’s not a very good rule of thumb. You probably bake a pumpkin or boil peas, but they are both fruits. In contrast, we eat bell peppers raw just like fruit, which they really are. But many people put them in the vegetable category.
It could reasonably be argued, though not very philosophical, that we should go with the classification most people use. If people think of zucchini as vegetables, maybe they are. The same can be applied to corn. Pritts admits that we eat corn like any other vegetable, but notes that corn is still not technically a vegetable. Moreover, many, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consider corn to be a vegetable. Perhaps corn is also a vegetable, since “vegetable” is a class designed to encompass arbitrary and miscellaneous things. We leave it up to you to choose the definitions you will fit; there is a suitable argument for all of them.