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The meaning of ‘fruits’ and ‘vegetables’

  • Frances E Thompson (a1), Gordon B Willis (a1), Olivia M Thompson (a2) and Amy L Yaroch (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 28 January 2011

Fruit and vegetable consumption is a focus of research and nutrition education; yet, there is no universal agreement on the meaning of ‘fruits’ and ‘vegetables’. Our objective was to describe survey respondent perceptions about a set of foods with regard to whether the food is a fruit, vegetable or something else.


Three cross-sectional studies.


Two small studies involving cognitive interviewing sessions; and one large self-administered population survey.


US adults in two small studies (n 55 and 80) and one large survey (n 3312), all with multiple race/ethnicities.


Perceptions varied. In the survey, rice was considered a vegetable by about 20 % of respondents. In one small study, Spanish speakers were more likely to consider rice a vegetable, and Chinese speakers less likely, than were English speakers. Black beans were frequently classified as something other than vegetable or fruit. Among Hispanics, Spanish speakers were less likely than English speakers to consider beans a vegetable. Overall, tomatoes were classified as both fruit and vegetable, and these perceptions varied by race/ethnicity.


Substantial disagreement among the fruit, vegetable and other food domains highlights the importance of clearly defining the desired constructs. Foods that require specific instruction include rice, dried beans, potatoes, tomatoes and fruits and vegetables in mixtures and condiments. For measurement, additional questions or explanations may be needed to clarify which foods are of interest. For communication, the global message to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables should be reinforced with specific guidance.

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2.JAT Pennington & RA Fisher (2009) Classification of fruits and vegetables. J Food Compost Anal 22, Suppl. 22, S23S31.

9.S Havas , J Heimendinger , K Reynolds (1994) 5 a day for better health: a new research initiative. J Am Diet Assoc 94, 3236.

10.WS Wolfe , EA Fongillo & PA Cassano (2001) Evaluating brief measures of fruit and vegetable consumption frequency and variety: cognition, interpretation, and other measurement issues. J Am Diet Assoc 101, 311318.

11.G Willis (2005) Cognitive Interviewing: A Tool for Improving Questionnaire Design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

16.AR Shaikh , AL Yaroch , L Nebeling (2008) Psychosocial predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption in adults: a review of the literature. Am J Prev Med 34, 535543.

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Public Health Nutrition
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