What “Counts” As a Veggie

Tonight, Matt and I had hot dogs for dinner, something occurred to me as I was putting ketchup and relish on my hot dog and pondering whether or not I wanted a salad. Remember the big hoopla about school cafeterias counting ketchup as a vegetable? The shock! The horror! But wait…if ketchup isn’t a vegetable, then how come tomato juice is? (Matt’s theory: V8 has a better PR department than Heinz.) Part of it is the serving size, and the amount of actual vitamins in a standard serving, sure. But I have to think that there’s also the underlying assumption that if it’s something most kids will eat willingly, it can’t possibly be good for you.

A tablespoon of ketchup has a bit of vitamins A and C, and not much else except some salt and sugar. But, while a cup of tomato juice has a lot more of both, as well as a bit of calcium, some potassium, and a little fiber, it also contains a crap-ton and a half of salt. (20% of your recommended daily intake, to be exact.) So is that good, or bad? Well, if you have high blood pressure, it’s terrible. If you’re at risk of scurvy, it’s freaking awesome. And ketchup, being sugary, is also a fantastic source of calories. Again, not so good if you’re diabetic or hypoglycemic, but potentially really useful for kids who need the energy to get through math class, especially if the school lunch is the main meal they’re getting that day.


17 thoughts on “What “Counts” As a Veggie

  1. Jennifer Hansen says:

    I think asking “what counts as a veggie?” is too vague. I’ve come to the conclusion that food groups are necessarily situational.

    Consider a family that is always close to not getting enough food to avoid going to bed hungry. The family visits food banks, shops with SNAP, and uses school breakfasts and lunches, WIC, CSFP, and TEFAP. The immediate issue is, “How do we get full, so as to avoid the shakiness, blurred thinking, inability to concentrate, moodiness, etc., etc., that hunger brings to our already harried lives?” Their food groups might look like this:

    1. Filling foods. These foods produce a lasting feeling of fullness plus a steady release of energy.
    2. High-energy foods. These foods give an energy boost, but don’t have staying power; they must be combined with filling foods in order to avoid a sugar crash.
    3. High-fiber foods. These foods prevent the immediate problem of constipation. Immediate nutritional problems are all that this family can address.
    4. Cooking fat. Having fat available for cooking increases the options for meals. Also, fat is fuel.
    5. Fresh (or fresh-tasting) fruits and vegetables. These ingredients help to perk up the flavors of the canned, boxed, and not-particularly-fresh foods that this family has to rely on.
    6. Everything else: seasonings, table sauces, oddball stuff like skimmed milk, etc.

    In this family’s diet, ketchup and V-8 are both “everything else.” Fruit juice is a high-energy food, but most whole fruits count as fruits (and possibly also as high-fiber foods).

    Contrast this with the diet plan of, oh, one of those “poor” families recently profiled in Wall Street Journal who take more in deductions than I have ever made in my life. They can afford to be thinking about what I have heard called “instrumental food.” Their food groups might count only locavore and/or organically grown produce as fruits and vegetables, with ordinary supermarket produce as “everything else” if they even permit it to pass their lips. Or they might be concerned with a family history of cancer and organize their eating around maximal antioxidants. Or they might be obsessed with long life and eat in order to mop up as many free radicals as possible.

    • Jennifer Hansen says:

      I should add that I’ve been sketching out a “food pyramid” that takes getting full as the first priority because all it’s going to take is one more hiccup in the economy and we’ll be there. My husband just got a raise. He also saw an end to the moratorium, or whatever it’s called, on taking the full amount for Social Security out of his paycheck. So his net income has gone down–and now we qualify for WIC. After 25 years working for the same company.

    • KellyK says:

      I think you’re absolutely right about food groups being situational. That’s a really good point.

  2. Twistie says:

    The problem with counting ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches was never about ketchup being ‘bad’ or being kid-friendly. The big problem was that it began being counted as a complete serving of vegetables rather than as a condiment, so schools suddenly didn’t have to serve an entire portion of vegetables because they were handing out a one-teaspoon packet of ketchup, and it was being treated as the same nutritional content.

    Therein lay the problem.

    I’m all for offering ketchup, mustard, relish, and other condiments that make meals more palatable for kids (though I must admit, ketchup never appealed to me… but then I was the weird kid who hated hot dogs and always requested spinach for my birthday dinner, too), so long as condiments do not substitute for full servings of vegetables, proteins, etc. If the basics are on the table, by all means, condiment away!

    • KellyK says:

      That makes a lot of sense. Based on the serving size, ketchup really doesn’t have the nutrition content of a serving of vegetables. I still tend to think that some of the hand-wringing was influenced by moralizing food and putting vegetables in a “virtuous” category, but the overall concern is definitely valid.

      When I was a kid, we never got individual packets, there were just big ketchup and mustard jars out. (I would think that if you offer all the condiments that generally go on a burger or hot dog (e.g., ketchup, mustard, relish, onion) that that should combine into offering a serving of veggies, even if the ketchup or the onion itself really isn’t one.) Come to think of it, though, I think we got a vegetable of some sort on burger days—usually corn if I recall correctly.

    • It reminds me of the recent furor about counting pizza sauce as a vegetable. There’s no way you can put enough sauce on a single serving of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables without making the pizza a soggy mess. But a lot of the reaction seemed to be based on the idea that pizza was junk food, or that a sauce can’t be a vegetable, even though pizza sauce is mostly pureed tomatoes.

      • KellyK says:

        Yeah. And if you have a pizza with some form of veggies, between the veggies and the sauce, you might get a serving of vegetables (depending on how big your piece of pizza is and what constitutes a serving).

        I’m trying to find what the actual requirement for a serving of vegetables is, but having some computer issues. It would be interesting to know what the criteria actually are.

      • The USDA defines it as 1/2 cup for most vegetables including cooked greens, and 1 cup for uncooked greens (e.g. lettuce).

      • When I make pizza, I generally use about 1/4 cup sauce for the entire pizza, so I don’t think the sauce would contribute much, but if you put on a a large amount of veggies for toppings, I’m thinking you might get 1/2-1 serving of veggies per slice (depending on the size of your slice and how much you piled on the veggies).

      • KellyK says:

        closetpuritan, do you know if the serving sizes are different for adults and kids? A whole cup of salad greens sounds like a grown-up size salad to me.

        Based on it being 1/4 a cup, even a pretty veggie-laden pizza isn’t likely to be a full serving. But if it could be cumulative, that would be a very good thing. (Pretty much the biggest amount of waste in school cafeterias is veggies.) Do a veggie pizza and offer a smaller salad or serving of green beans or whatever.

      • Rather than having different size servings, they have fewer servings recommended for kids than for adults. This chart lists them in terms of cups rather than servings, but it recommends 1 1/2 cups vegetables (3 servings) for children 4-8. For adult women under 50, they recommend 2 1/2 cups; for men, 3. (It then has another section on what counts as a cup, with 2 cups of leafy greens counting as 1 cup.)

        But yes, there’s no reason not to add up partial servings. If you served pizza with 1/4 cup of vegetable toppings/sauce, and 1/2 cup leafy greens or 1/4 cup broccoli on the side (because broccoli is Italian–gotta stick with the Italian theme), you’d have 1 serving of vegetable in the meal.

      • KellyK says:

        Sorry that took me a while to approve, and thanks for the info on serving sizes.

  3. BlankaUK says:

    Tomato is not vegetable, it is a fruit….

    • KellyK says:

      🙂 Yep, botanically it is a fruit. Nutritionally and in terms of cooking, it’s a vegetable. “’Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

      • “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”

        This is great! Do you know where it originally came from?

        When someone brings it up I always say that botanically it’s a fruit, but culinarily it’s a vegetable.

        Peppers and eggplants and squash are also (botanical) fruits, but tomatoes seem to be the only ones people single out to point out as a vegetable. I heard that this was because of a legal case where subsidies or something hinged on whether tomatoes were considered a vegetable.

      • KellyK says:

        As best as I can tell, it came from Miles Kington, a British journalist and musician.

        And yeah, the US Supreme Court officially declared tomatoes a vegetable in 1893. A tariff act had declared a tax on imported vegetables, but not imported fruit. So an importer of tomatoes sued the port tax collector on the grounds that tomatoes were a fruit and they shouldn’t have to pay. Supreme Court said, nope, the law is based on the common use, not the botanical technicality.

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