Just the other day while checking on my chilli plants I found myself asking this exact question: Are chilli peppers a fruit or a vegetable? So I went on a quest to discover definitively where the chilli pepper fits in. The results were more interesting than I had expected, taking me on a cultural journey as well as a scientific one.

So, are chilli peppers a fruit or a vegetable? By botanical classification chilli peppers are a fruit; they form from the ovary of a pollinated flower, have multiple fleshy layers and at maturity contain seeds. When combined, these qualities are exclusive to fruit.

Going by the scientific definition, chilli peppers are definitely a fruit, but if you had to ask a chef the same question, you are bound to get a different answer. Depending on what type of cuisine is being discussed. the science may even be there to back them up.


Is a Chilli Pepper Definitively a Fruit?

According to botanical classification the chilli is most definitely a fruit; even more specifically, the chilli pepper is actually a berry (more on that later). Where some controversy creeps in is that chillies are a food with a broad range of uses and what is commonly accepted as truth doesn’t always fit in with scientific classification. An example being, we commonly refer to and treat tomatoes as a vegetable, however, according to science, they are a fruit, just like the chilli pepper.

Here are a few surprising examples of other fruit that are commonly treated as vegetables:

  • Eggplants
  • Cucumbers
  • Pumpkins
  • Beans
  • Peanuts
  • Corn

When looking at things from a culinary perspective, many fruits are treated as vegetables; the distinction is generally based on whether the fruit is sweet or savory. Sweet, it’s a fruit, savory, it’s a vegetable. In line with this definition, milder chilli’s, especially green ones, are often used as a vegetable. A dish I love that fits this definition is Jalapeno poppers, a delicious starter to a three-course meal or simple party snack. Another great example is chili rellenos, a dish originating from the city of Puebla in Mexico.

Dried chillies are sometimes used as a spicy addition to warm up a dish or as part of a tasty spice blend for barbecued meat. When dried in the form of powder or flakes we treat chillies as a spice. No contradictions here, by definition a spice can also be a fruit.

Even in the culinary world putting the chilli pepper into a simple category is not that easy and the deeper we dig, the more intriguing things get; so far we have only been discussing the chillies themselves, not the whole chilli plant.

During a holiday to the Philippines, I had the privilege of tasting a local Filipino version of chicken soup, which was seriously some of the best chicken soup I’ve ever tasted, the secret ingredient (well to me at least), chilli leaves. Chicken Tinola, as it’s known locally, is a combination of common ingredients like garlic, ginger and onions, with more exotic ones like green papaya, chilli leaves and moringa leaves. If you are interested in tasting this delicious dish for yourself check out a traditional Tinola recipe here

That’s not the only example of chilli leaves being used in cooking: In Thailand, they use chilli leaves to add color to green curry paste. The addition of chilli leaves gives the curry paste a vibrant bright green color. They also reduce the number of green chillies needed to make the paste which is a way to adjust its heat without compromising on flavour.

Getting back to definitions, when chilli leaves are eaten as part of a meal, they are scientifically classified as a vegetable. By definition, vegetables are any part of a plant that can be consumed and does not fall into the category of a fruit or seed. This includes leaves, roots, stems and flowers.

Wow, who knew that the humble chilli pepper could wear so many hats. What truly makes the chilli amazing is its versatility; it has so many different uses and has been adopted by such a wide variety of cultures, each preparing and using it in their own unique ways.


Are Chillies a Berry?

Looking at the chilli pepper itself we find that it belongs to a particular category of fruit, the berry. To be a classified as a berry, a fruit must contain multiple seeds and develop from a flower that contains a single ovary. Berries also have three distinct fleshy laters: an outer skin called the exocarp, a fleshy layer below the skin (the mesocarp) and an innermost layer that holds or contains the seeds (the endocarp).

Using the chilli as an example, these are three easily identifiable layers: There is a thin, but tough layer of outer skin, a juicy layer of flesh, and a white placental flesh at the core of the chilli that the seeds are attached to. The placental flesh contains the highest percentage of capsaicin (the compound that makes chillies hot) in comparison with the other layers of the chilli and it’s seeds.

Sometimes the English translation of Latin names is misleading, not in the case of the Capsicum baccatum though, the Latin name for a particular species of chilli commonly grown in South America. When translated to English, baccatum means berry-like. While this species contains many unique varieties, there are definitely a few that have a berry-like appearance.


Are Chillies any Less Healthy for you Because they are a Fruit?

Chillies are no less healthy for you due to being classified as a fruit. In fact chillies contain high levels of vitamin C (higher than that of an orange) and a reasonable amount of vitamin B6 and antioxidants. They also contain moderate levels of minerals and fibre, with a relatively low sugar and fat content. When dried, the concentration of minerals and vitamins is much higher by weight, given that fresh chilli peppers are approximately 94% water.

These measurements are great, the trouble is though that we commonly only eat small amounts of hot pepper due to its spicy heat, which is caused by the chemical, capsaicin. Capsaicin reacts with certain receptors on our tongue and skin. These receptors send a false message to the brain that we are experiencing a localised increase in temperature, which we experience as pain. As a reaction to pain, the brain signals the release of endorphins which reduces our perception of pain and is also known to improve mood and reduce stress. Who doesn’t like a healthy mood boost now and then, so when weighing up the health benefits of the chilli pepper this is definitely an aspect to keep in mind.


Is it Safe to Eat Chilli Leaves?

Once cooked, chilli leaves from a few common Capsicum species are safe to eat in small quantities.

These include:

  • Capsicum Annuum
  • Capsicum Chinense
  • Capsicum Frutescens

In Asian countries the leaves from Capsicum frutescens are the most commonly consumed, generally in limited quantity. Coming from the nightshade family of plants, along with tomatoes and potatoes, it is not recommended that chilli leaves be eaten in large quantities or consumed fresh.

Many plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) contain Solanine and groups of closely related chemicals that are know to be toxic to humans. The exact amount of these chemicals present in chilli leaves is not well researched and most likely varies based on growing conditions and the genetics of individual plants. In other species from the same family that are well researched, such as potatoes this is the case.

The fact that chilli leaves have been part of Asian cuisine for a fairly long time now is an indicator that there is probably nothing to worry about if you are consuming chilli leaves in small quantities. Potatoes are known to leave trace amounts of Solanine in humans after being consumed; these levels drop off fairly quickly without causing any harm.


Related Questions

Are Chillies and Peppers the Same Thing?
Chillies (aka hot peppers) and sweet peppers are both from the Capsicum genus. There is a recessive gene that stops the production of capsaicin in sweet peppers. Various chilli varieties also have this gene and as a result are not hot at all.

Do Jalapenos Count as Vegetables?
As part of the Capsicum annuum species Jalapenos are technically a fruit like other chillies, but if you’re being asked to eat your vegetables Jalapenos may well be the most exciting thing on the plate, so go for it!

Is Capsicum a Fruit?
Capsicum is most definitely a fruit. Different countries call sweet peppers capsicums and vice versa. Capsicum also refers to the genus that contains all species of chillies, hot and not.