I've been debating with my friends whether or not corn kernels are considered to be fruits or vegetables or nuts. To my knowledge, a fruit is a sweet "bubble" (in that it's a membrane with a fleshy interior) of a plant's seed (they remind me of pomegranate seeds). A vegetable is part of a plant that is eaten but not part of the seed. I was under the impression that nuts were only from a specific "branch" of plant evolution that is predominantly trees. This information would lead me to believe it is isn't any of them. Looking into it myself, I learned the word aril, but I'm not sure if corn's kernels are like that, either. It doesn't sound like it fits the criteria of that, or any of them.

Taking up from there, I'm a bit confused on what corn should be called. Do we have a name for corn like we do everything?


  • It sounds like you're asking in a biological sense, not a culinary sense. There's a biology.stackexchange.com that might be better suited for that. In a culinary sense, strict definitions like "an over-ripened ovum" aren't very useful - we care about how something's used in cooking.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 1:40
  • right, I'll change my wording. I was wondering if there was a culinary sense
    – Throsby
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 1:44
  • 1
    Yes, there is a culinary sense. But unlike biology, it does not Havre consistent definitions, but relies on convention. In cooking, a tomato is a vegetable, a pear is a fruit, a coconut is a nut. Biologically, they are all fruits.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 7:03
  • 1
    Also, biologically, all fruits are vegetables...though I doubt anyone here is mistaking them for animals or minerals. The debate I'm usually more used to is "is corn a vegetable, or a grain?" in the culinary or food-group sense. Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 22:45

6 Answers 6


Corn (Maize) is clearly a cereal grain, and not any of the other things you mention. Even the farmers and agricultural agencies consider it a grain - it's one of the "official grains of Canada" and regulated by the Canadian grain commission.

I'm not sure when or why it started being called a vegetable, but as far as the culinary definition goes, it has far too much sugar and starch to fall properly into that category. The typical culinary definition of a vegetable is savory, not sweet.

Botanically, the kernels can be considered a type of fruit called a caryopsis (AKA a grain), although it's not normally eaten as fruit (for one thing, it's normally cooked).

It may accompany vegetables reasonably well, just like rice or many other grains. But it is a grain.

  • 1
    Sorry, Aaronut, it is a fruit botanically (a multiple fruit), and it is from a flowering plant--all grasses are flowering plants. those tassels are the modified female part of the flower.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 1:47
  • @SAJ14SAJ: You're right, I decided to look that up and correct the answer.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 1:49
  • What are the odds all of us would be on to catch this question at once :-)
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 1:50

In terms of culinary use, corn is either a grain or a vegetable. When we use it as cornmeal, polenta, or even popcorn, we're essentially thinking of it as a grain - and it really is a cereal grain. But when we eat sweet corn off the cob, or incorporated into a dish, we're thinking of it more as a vegetable. (It's still really a grain, but I think it's fair to say it's used as a vegetable sometimes.)

The kernel, the part we eat, is a seed.


Botanically, it is a grain. Its a giant grass. In most cuisines, it treated mostly as a starch.

The entire corn cob is a multiple fruit.


Corn kernels are seeds and the kernels is an ear. All the fruits of graminae are ears: this means "seed heads" made ​​up of many fruits (usually insignificant) growing together, precisely in an ear. When the fruits are ripe ears of generating seeds.

In wheat, rice, rye grass, they are ears.


Oats are infructescenses


In corn are cobs:


All the fruits of true grasses are ears: this means "seed heads" made ​​up of many fruits (usually insignificant) growing together, precisely in an ear. When the fruits are ripe ears of generating seeds.

There are many types of true grasse, some edible and some not. The visible ears are groups of seeds.

Same question you can ask for tomatoes or peppers = they are fruits, but used as vegetables.


Corn is a wildly diverse crop, human breeding has adapted it for many, many purposes:

  • Cereal crop to be processed: You harvest the dried kernals of certain varieties of corn from the cob, and store them until they're ready to be processed and consumed, usually by soaking them in lye, then grinding them into a paste (masa) that is either used in recipes as is, or dried into cornmeal.

  • Cereal crop to be stored and cooked: certain varieties of corn's kernels are exposed to heat, and their nutritious, starch laden meat is expanded into something that can be combined with water and other ingredients into a tasty gruel, or snacked on straight from the heat source (hot sand in pre-columbian cultures, animal or vegetable fats in colonial cultures, hot air in modern homes. Yup. Popcorn was an essential staple in some pre-columbian cultures.)

  • Fresh vegetable/fruit: Sweetcorn is a perishable crop, who's caryopsis (kernels) have a sweet, moist texture very similar to fresh fruits and "vegetables" that are fruiting bodies of plants. While technically a whole grain, sweetcorn contains many vitamins and nutrients and flavor profiles associated with fresh produce.


A maize grain is considered a fruit because it shares some features with other fruits, for example: it has two scars, etc.

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