Know Your Fruits, Vegetables & Berries?

Friday, August 09, 2019

Professor Peter Coppinger is a plant biologist who enjoys helping people understand science concepts found in everyday life. Uncovering some of these mysteries “just blows my students’ minds,” he says.

It’s not uncommon to see shoppers closely examine the condition of the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

Take a closer look, though, and you might discover things you didn’t know about those nutritious and delicious items that are a staple of summer meals.

For instance, did you know that the biological makeup of corn, tomatoes and green beans reveals that they’re actually fruits, not vegetables?

Even more bewildering is the fact that strawberries and raspberries aren’t really berries at all. Yet, a banana is.

Peter Coppinger, associate professor of biology, provides a rather simple definition of fruits and vegetables: If the object comes from a flower, it’s a fruit. If not, it’s a vegetable.

“One of the most frustrating things about being a dad and biologist is having to look at my children’s farm books and see a page that states ‘these (bananas and strawberries) are pictures of fruits’ and another page says ‘these (corn, tomatoes and beans) are vegetables’,” he says. “That’s not true. Corn is a fruit. Each kernel came from an individual flower. It’s the same thing for beans and peanuts. They both came from a flower.”

Meanwhile, according to Coppinger, a strawberry is derived from a single flower with more than one ovary (the dimples that are scattered across its skin), making it an aggregate fruit, and definitely not a berry. True berries are simple fruits that stem from one flower with one ovary and typically have several seeds. That puts tomatoes, kiwis and bananas in this group.

“Uncovering these mysteries of biology just blows my students’ minds,” says the plant biology specialist. He enjoys helping people understand science concepts found in everyday life, and is frequently featured on a Terre Haute television station’s “Clearing Up The Science” segments.