Public Health Nutrition

Assessment and methodology

The meaning of ‘fruits’ and ‘vegetables’

Frances E Thompsona1 c1, Gordon B Willisa1, Olivia M Thompsona2 p1 and Amy L Yarocha2 p2

a1 Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods Branch, Applied Research Program, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, US National Cancer Institute, 6130 Executive Blvd/EPN 4095A MSC 7344, Bethesda, MD 20892-7344, USA

a2 Health Promotion Research Branch, Behavioral Research Program, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, US National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA


Objective 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.

Design Three cross-sectional studies.

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

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

Results 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.

Conclusions 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.

(Received May 06 2010)

(Accepted November 23 2010)

(Online publication January 28 2011)


c1 Corresponding author: Email

p1 Present affiliation: Department of Health Promotion & Social and Behavioral Health, College of Public Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center, 986075 Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 68198-6075, USA

p2 Present affiliation: The Center for Human Nutrition, 505 Durham Research Plaza – Rm 1024, Omaha, NE 68105-1313, USA