Is a nut a fruit?

A qualified yes: as with other questions of this type (such as Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?), it all depends on whether you’re speaking from a botanical or a culinary point of view.

Many of the edible plant products which we call nuts are, in botanical terms, fruit. Here’s the core part of the scientific definition of a nut from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘a hard, indehiscent, usually one-seeded fruit’ – a fruit being the seed-bearing structure of a plant, formed from the ovary. In layperson’s language, this definition means that botanists categorize a nut as a type of fruit with a hard shell that encloses the seed or seeds, while indehiscent means that it doesn’t split open to release the seed(s) when it’s ripe.

Scientists would thus classify chestnuts, hazelnuts, acorns, walnuts, and pecans as ‘true nuts’. However, as discussed elsewhere , coconuts are a type of fruit (a drupe) but aren’t ‘true nuts’ because they are dehiscent (that is, they split open when ripe). Macadamia nuts are also a type of dehiscent fruit, known as a follicle.

So, returning to the qualified ‘yes’ of the opening sentence, there are other plant products which we eat as nuts which aren’t fruit at all. The OED therefore also provides a more general definition of a nut: ‘a fruit or seed with a enclosing [an]...edible or oil-yielding kernel’. Brazil nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and peanuts are all, botanically, seeds rather than fruit.

Furthermore, in general terms, the word ‘nut’ can also refer only to the kernel of a nut: if you talk about eating a walnut or a hazelnut, for example, you’re only referring to eating the kernel, not the shell (unless you have extremely strong teeth and an even more robust digestive system!).


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