Mamma Mia! Is Pizza a Vegetable or Not?

The secret, or in this case, the vegetable, is in the sauce. (Jyoti Das/Flickr)

The secret, or in this case, the vegetable, is in the sauce. (Jyoti Das/Flickr)

Health advocates are outraged. Corporate suppliers of school lunches are pleased and, presumably, kids are thrilled.

Earlier this week, Congress blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule changes for school lunches. Congress was worried about potential changes in starchy vegetables (think French Fries), sodium and whole wheat.

But more than anything else, pizza is getting all the attention. To clarify, it’s the tomato paste on the slice of pizza that has counted as a vegetable. That’s not new. The new proposal would have increased the tomato paste requirement from the current two tablespoons to half a cup.  Industry said that much tomato paste would render a slice of pizza inedible. So, two tablespoons per slice of pizza stands as a vegetable serving.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop rounded up the best bits of outrage, starting with Food Politics author and NYU Professor Marion Nestle.

“Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test? … The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.”

From Gawker: “Got it, everyone? Your kids can continue stuffing their faces with as much frozen pizza as they want now. It’s essentially the same thing as eating celery.”

Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer had my personal favorite: “Congress says pizza is a vegetable. Is The Onion now writing legislation?”

For readers above a certain age, you may be having a flashback to the Reagan administration’s attempt to declare ketchup a vegetable. The 1981 proposal failed and The New York Times ran an odd footnote to that controversy, reporting on the famous, wealthy, Republican Senator who vehemently opposed the idea.

Who was it?

Senator Henry Heinz. The fact that his name is synonymous with ketchup did not stop him from calling the ketchup/vegetable idea a “ridiculous regulation,” adding, “I suppose I need not add that I do know something about ketchup.”

Finally, to you science-minded readers, yes, botanically, a tomato is a fruit. The reason the federal government calls it a vegetable stems from a tariff on imported vegetables passed by Congress in the 1880s. A tomato importer declared he didn’t have to pay the tariff, since tomatoes are a fruit. The Supreme Court settled the matter in the 1890’s, declaring tomatoes a vegetable.

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