Chapter 2 General properties of fruit and vegetables; chemical composition and nutritional aspects; structural features

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2.1 General properties

Fruit and vegetables have many similarities with respect to their compositions, methods of cultivation and harvesting, storage properties and processing. In fact, many vegetables may be considered fruit in the true botanical sense. Botanically, fruits are those portions of the plant which house seeds. Therefore such items as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and others would be classified as fruits on this basis.

However, the important distinction between fruit and vegetables has come to be made on an usage basis. Those plant items that are generally eaten with the main course of a meal are considered to be vegetables. Those that are commonly eaten as dessert are considered fruits. That is the distinction made by the food processor, certain marketing laws and the consuming public, and this distinction will be followed in this document.

Vegetables are derived from various parts of plants and it is sometimes useful to associate different vegetables with the parts of the plant they represent since this provides clues to some of the characteristics we may expect in these items. A classification of vegetables based on morphological features is seen in Table 2.1.

TABLE 2.1 Classification of Vegetables*

Category Examples
Earth vegetables roots sweet potatoes, carrots
modified stems tubers potatoes
modified buds bulbs onions, garlic
Herbage vegetables  
leaves cabbage, spinach, lettuce
petioles (leaf stalk) celery, rhubarb
flower buds cauliflower, artichokes
sprouts, shoots (young stems) asparagus, bamboo shoots
Fruit vegetables  
legumes peas, green beans
cereals sweet corn
vine fruits squash, cucumber
berry fruits tomato, egg plant
tree fruits avocado, breadfruit

Source: Feinberg (1973)

Fruit as a dessert item, is the mature ovaries of plants with their seeds. The edible portion of most fruit is the fleshy part of the pericarp or vessel surrounding the seeds. Fruit in general is acidic and sugary. They commonly are grouped into several major divisions, depending principally upon botanical structure, chemical composition and climatic requirements.

Berries are fruit which are generally small and quite fragile. Grapes are also physically fragile and grow in clusters. Melons, on the other hand, are large and have a tough outer rind. Drupes (stone fruit) contain single pits and include such items as apricots, cherries, peaches and plums. Pomes contain many pits, and are represented by apples, quince and pears.

Citrus fruit like oranges, grapefruit and lemons are high in citric acid. Tropical and subtropical fruits include bananas, dates, figs, pineapples, mangoes, and others which require warm climates, but exclude the separate group of citrus fruits.

The compositions of representative vegetables and fruits in comparison with a few of the cereal grains are seen in Table 2.2.

TABLE 2.2 Typical percentage composition of foods from plant origin Percentage Composition- Edible Portion

Food Carbo-hydrate Protein Fat Ash Water
wheat flour, white 73.9 10.5 1.9 1.7 12
rice, milled, white 78.9 6.7 0.7 0.7 13
maize, whole grain 72.9 9.5 4.3 1.3 12
Earth vegetables
potatoes, white 18.9 2.0 0.1 1.0 78
sweet potatoes 27.3 1.3 0.4 1.0 70
carrots 9.1 1.1 0.2 1.0 88.6
radishes 4.2 1.1 0.1 0.9 93.7
asparagus 4.1 2.1 0.2 0.7 92.9
beans, snap, green 7.6 2.4 0.2 0.7 89.1
peas, fresh 17.0 6.7 0.4 0.9 75.0
lettuce 2.8 1.3 0.2 0.9 94.8
banana 24.0 1.3 0.4 0.8 73.5
orange 11.3 0.9 0.2 0.5 87.1
apple 15.0 0.3 0.4 0.3 84.0
strawberries 8.3 0.8 0.5 0.5 89.9

Source: Anon. (196O)

Compositions of vegetables and fruit not only vary for a given kind in according to botanical variety, cultivation practices, and weather, but change with the degree of maturity prior to harvest, and the condition of ripeness, which is progressive after harvest and is further influenced by storage conditions. Nevertheless, some generalisations can be made.

Most fresh vegetables and fruit are high in water content, low in protein, and low in fat. In these cases water contents will generally be greater than 70% and frequently greater than 85%.

Commonly protein content will not be greater than 3.5% or fat content greater than 0.5 %. Exceptions exist in the case of dates and raisins which are substantially lower in moisture but cannot be considered fresh in the same sense as other fruit. Legumes such as peas and certain beans are higher in protein; a few vegetables such as sweet corn which are slightly higher in fat and avocados which are substantially higher in fat.

Vegetables and fruit are important sources of both digestible and indigestible carbohydrates. The digestible carbohydrates are present largely in the form of sugars and starches while indigestible cellulose provides roughage which is important to normal digestion.

Fruit and vegetables are also important sources of minerals and certain vitamins, especially vitamins A and C. The precursors of vitamin A, including beta-carotene and certain other carotenoids, are to be found particularly in the yellow-orange fruit and vegetables and in the green leafy vegetables.

Citrus fruit are excellent sources of vitamin C, as are green leafy vegetables and tomatoes. Potatoes also provide an important source of vitamin C for the diets of many countries. This is not so much due to the level of vitamin C in potatoes which is not especially high but rather to the large quantities of potatoes consumed.

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