The History of the Tomato: The Fruit that Spread Round the World

Tomatoes are an essential part of modern cuisine across the entire world, but for most of history, they were completely unknown to people outside of Central America.

Apr 7, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

history of tomato


It is hard to imagine cuisine from the Mediterranean without tomatoes, but this is exactly how it was before the Spanish conquest of the New World and all the new and strange foodstuffs that the Spanish brought back with them to Europe.


Long before Europeans had any notion of such a thing as a tomato, however, the people of Central America were eating this fruit.


Today, the tomato is a culinary staple, used in food preparation around the entire world. It has become symbolic of national dishes and is an essential ingredient to so many dishes that a world without it is barely conceivable.


This is the history of the tomato.


Pre-Columbian History of the Tomato

wild galapagos tomatoes
Wild Galapagos Tomatoes (Solanum cheesmaniae). Source: Terroir Seeds

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The tomato is native to the western half of South and Central America, and it was likely consumed by the Indigenous people of the region for many centuries before the first hard evidence of its cultivation.


What is known is that by 500 BCE, it was being cultivated in what is now Mexico. It could have been cultivated in other parts of South America long before this, and it was most certainly known as an edible fruit long before cultivation. It would have been eaten by hunter-gatherer tribes. It is possible that cultivation began as far back as 7000 BCE.


These tomatoes, however, did not look like our modern conception of what a tomato should look like. For starters, they were the size of peas, and they were yellow. They also tasted very different and were far more acidic and sour than modern varieties. Nevertheless, they became part of the Native South and Central American diet, so much so that they were purposefully farmed.


tomatillos riverford organic farmers
Tomatillos. Source: Riverford Organic Farmers


By the time of the Aztecs, a vast variety of tomatoes were available in the markets. In 1529, the Aztec relationship with tomatoes was recorded by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who traveled with Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors to the New World. In Mexico City, he noted that there were many shapes and sizes of tomatoes. While some were small and cherry-like, others were large and round or elongated. He also noted that there were many colors, from the palest yellow to the deepest red.


Sahagún noted that in the markets, the Aztecs cooked and sold many different tomato sauces and juices mixed with other foods such as squash, chili, avocados, beans, and even “bird excrement.”


Additionally, the Aztecs grew tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes, and are notable for the fact that the fruit is green and covered by a husk. The English name “tomato” is derived from the Aztec Nahuatl language. They called their red tomatoes xictomatl and their tomatillos tomatl.


The Great Columbian Exchange

hernan cortes public domain
Hernán Cortés (1485–1547 CE) conquered the Aztecs and is said to have been responsible for bringing the tomato back to Europe. Source: Public Domain via World History Encyclopedia


The arrival of the Spanish in the New World brought many changes, not just to the New World, but to Europe, as both continents would be introduced to many things from the other.


Many fruits, vegetables, and grains crossed the Atlantic in Spanish galleons and found themselves being adopted or rejected by Europeans. This included potatoes, tomatoes, chilis, avocado, corn, beans, squash, chocolate, and vanilla.


new world salad
A salad containing many foods from the New World: pineapple, corn, tomato, and avocado. Source: Pure Gold Pineapples


The tomato, like the potato, is part of the nightshade family of plants, which includes belladonna, and was thus viewed with great suspicion. In some folklore, it was believed that eating tomatoes would turn your blood to acid. The suspicions, however, were not completely unfounded. All parts of the tomato plant are toxic except for the fruit! And in some varieties, even the fruit contains toxins.


Within a few years, however, these suspicions were put to rest, and the tomato became an edible addition to many dishes. Only a few years after the appearance of the tomato in Spain, people were growing and eating them, as they grew very well in the Mediterranean climate. As early as 1544, the tomato made an appearance in a book by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who regarded the tomato as a type of eggplant that could be cooked and eaten in the same fashion.


As the Spanish Empire spread, so did the tomato. It was grown and eaten in all parts of the Spanish Empire, including the Philippines, which was acquired by Spain in 1565. From there, the tomato spread throughout Southeast Asia, where it was quickly adopted and adapted into the local cuisine. By the late 16th century, the tomato had found its way to China, where it was called 番茄 (fānqié – foreign eggplant).


By the beginning of the 17th century, tomatoes were commonplace in Spanish food.


neapolitan pizza vincenzos plate
A traditional Neapolitan pizza. Source: Vincenzo’s Plate


For a nation so closely associated with tomatoes, the story of how they found popularity in Italy is somewhat surprising. While the Spanish were consuming tomatoes in great quantities, the Italians, for many decades, saw tomatoes purely as decoration. It wasn’t until the late 17th to early 18th century that tomatoes started to be eaten. Even among the peasant class, tomatoes were not considered worth the time or effort because, as a fruit, they were not as tasty or as filling as the fruit that was already available.


This dynamic changed, and tomatoes went from being persona non grata to being the most loved addition to Italian food. Exactly how this happened is unknown, but it was likely a snowball effect of acceptance of the tomato as being tasty and edible when cooked. However it happened, it caused a tomato revolution in Italy. Over the next centuries, vast numbers of cultivars were created and served different purposes in Italian cuisine, from pizza and pasta toppings to sauces and salads.


rembrandt peal thomas jefferson
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Source: The White House Historical Association


It took a bit longer for the tomato to be accepted in Britain and its North American colonies. As on the continent, the suspicion regarding its supposed poisonous nature was present, but it seemed to have informed the attitude towards the tomato much more than in Spain. By the mid-18th century, the tomato had been accepted and was widespread but not consumed in great quantities, such as in the countries around the Mediterranean. Tomatoes were still regarded as something exotic.


The appearance of the first tomatoes being grown in British North America is dated to 1710, when a herbalist named William Salmon noticed them in South Carolina. It is suggested that they were brought over via the Caribbean and were originally transported there by colonists from Europe.


This dynamic mirrors the introduction of potatoes into North America. They were not brought into the British colonies via what would have been a short trip from Central and South America. Foods like these were regarded with suspicion when first introduced to Europe. Then, they underwent a change where they were subjected to selective cultivation. The superior plant was then transported back to North America to support the colonists.


It was not until several decades later that tomatoes actually became popular in the United States. According to legend, it was due to Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have grown them in his garden. The women in his family used them in various delicious dishes, wowing their guests with the culinary delight. This story, however, is anecdotal, and it is unlikely to have actually been how tomatoes spread across the United States.


tomato soup natashas kitchen
Tomato soup. Source: Natasha’s Kitchen


Another American anecdote that attests to the suspicion surrounding tomatoes is one whereby a gentleman, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, sat down on the steps of a courthouse and ate an entire basket of tomatoes. A crowd gathered, expecting him to die from poisoning, but he finished the tomatoes and walked away. Thus, tomatoes in the United States lost some of their bad reputation. There was still enough suspicion that tomatoes were not eaten fresh. It was only after being processed that they were generally consumed. During this time, ketchup was far more popular than the idea of a fresh tomato in a salad!


By the end of the 19th century, however, tomatoes began to grow in fields and in popularity, being eaten fresh or cooked and served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Today, tomatoes are grown in every state, with most of the tomato farms in the Sun Belt, especially in Florida and California.


Tomatoes were a late addition to the table in the Middle East and North Africa. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century when they were introduced to the region by the British consul to Aleppo, John Barker. In the middle of the 19th century, the popularity of the tomato increased significantly and became an integral part of many dishes across the region.


Tomato Declared a Vegetable?

tomatoes pexels free image
Tomatoes. Source: Pexels / Julia Nagy


There was no doubt among scientists that the tomato was a fruit and, more specifically, a berry. The United States Supreme Court, however, decided to classify tomatoes as vegetables in order to subject them to a 10% tariff on vegetables.


The ruling came in 1893, and it was argued that “in the common language of the people,” the tomato was a vegetable because it was served as such. Fruit was served as dessert, and vegetables were cooked and served with savory flavors. Whether cooked or eaten raw, tomatoes were considered vegetables by legal decree. Thus began (or maybe ended) the long-standing argument over whether tomatoes constitute a fruit or a vegetable.


Tomatoes Today

la tomatina festival
La Tomatina Festival in Spain. Source: Creative Commons / Flickr / Wikipedia


Tomatoes are found everywhere today and are grown in vast quantities. They are essential ingredients to many dishes found all over the world, from India to China, to Europe, the Americas, and Africa. There is no part of the world untouched by the flavor of the tomato.


And they’re not just for eating! Since 1945, La Tomatina Festival has been held in Spain every year, whereby people celebrate the existence of tomatoes by throwing them at each other!


From little berries growing in the wilds of South America to the plates of hundreds of millions of people across the entire world, the tomato is one of the most ubiquitous foods today, forming a vital part of the national culture and cuisine of many countries.


Today, tomatoes are readily available almost anywhere in the world and are so popular that it’s difficult to imagine a world without them.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.