Vegetables are parts of plants that are consumed by humans or other animals as food. The original meaning is still commonly used and is applied to plants collectively to refer to all edible plant matter, including the flowers, fruits, stems, leaves, roots, and seeds. The alternate definition of the term is applied somewhat arbitrarily, often by culinary and cultural tradition. It may exclude foods derived from some plants that are fruits, flowers, nuts, and cereal grains, but include savoury fruits such as tomatoes and courgettes, flowers such as broccoli, and seeds such as pulses.
Originally, vegetables were collected from the wild by hunter-gatherers and entered cultivation in several parts of the world, probably during the period 10,000 BC to 7,000 BC, when a new agricultural way of life developed. At first, plants which grew locally would have been cultivated, but as time went on, trade brought exotic crops from elsewhere to add to domestic types. Nowadays, most vegetables are grown all over the world as climate permits, and crops may be cultivated in protected environments in less suitable locations. China is the largest producer of vegetables, and global trade in agricultural products allows consumers to purchase vegetables grown in faraway countries. The scale of production varies from subsistence farmers supplying the needs of their family for food, to agribusinesses with vast acreages of single-product crops. Depending on the type of vegetable concerned, harvesting the crop is followed by grading, storing, processing, and marketing.
Vegetables can be eaten either raw or cooked and play an important role in human nutrition, being mostly low in fat and carbohydrates, but high in vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Many nutritionists encourage people to consume plenty of fruit and vegetables, five or more portions a day often being recommended.
Domestic vegetable garden in London
The word vegetable was first recorded in English in the early 15th century. It comes from Old French,and was originally applied to all plants; the word is still used in this sense in biological contexts. It derives from Medieval Latin vegetabilis “growing, flourishing” (i.e. of a plant), a semantic change from a Late Latin meaning “to be enlivening, quickening”.
The meaning of “vegetable” as a “plant grown for food” was not established until the 18th century. In 1767, the word was specifically used to mean a “plant cultivated for food, an edible herb or root”. The year 1955 saw the first use of the shortened, slang term “veggie”.
As an adjective, the word vegetable is used in scientific and technical contexts with a different and much broader meaning, namely of “related to plants” in general, edible or not—as in vegetable matter, vegetable kingdom, vegetable origin, etc.
A Venn diagram shows the overlap in the terminology of “vegetables” in a culinary sense and “fruits” in the botanical sense.
The exact definition of “vegetable” may vary simply because of the many parts of a plant consumed as food worldwide—roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. The broadest definition is the word’s use adjectivally to mean “matter of plant origin”. More specifically, a vegetable may be defined as “any plant, part of which is used for food”, a secondary meaning then being “the edible part of such a plant”. A more precise definition is “any plant part consumed for food that is not a fruit or seed, but including mature fruits that are eaten as part of a main meal”. Falling outside these definitions are edible fungi (such as edible mushrooms) and edible seaweed which, although not parts of plants, are often treated as vegetables.