Hello and welcome back this week to Factually Deficient! I have been so enjoying everyone’s questions, and am delighted to be able to answer them incompetently here! I once again remind everyone to send me questions at any time of the day or night, on any subject your heart desires.
This week, I am answering yet another botany question. The question comes from Genndy Oda:
Why are grapefruits bigger and more bitter than lemons, when normally larger fruits are sweeter?
This is an interesting question, because within your question you are actually begging the question, an idiom which normally means “taking for granted a statement which may not be correct” and which I am here using to mean “practically begging me to treat this question as two questions because you are taking one statement for granted in your question about something else.” In other words, you make an interesting assumption that larger fruits are, in general, sweeter than smaller ones.
But before I enter into the matter of grapefruits and lemons specifically– which, fear not, I shall– I need to investigate whether this assumption about larger fruits being sweeter is in fact accurate.
First, we should look at the largest fruit. I need do no research to know that the largest fruit imaginable is the tomato; it is so large that many people often mistake it for a vegetable. That proves that it is the largest fruit.
But are tomatoes sweet? Tomatoes, as I’m sure you know, are a member of the nightshade family. The nightshade family also includes a plant known as the Deadly Nightshade, which, true to its name, is highly poisonous. Obviously, as a close cousin of the Deadly Nightshade, the tomato is also poisonous, albeit less so. Thus, without tasting a tomato I can tell you that tomatoes are not sweet at all; it is a basic principle of evolution that if poisons were sweet, humanity would constantly be eating them, and would consequently go extinct. Humanity is not extinct; therefore, tomatoes are not sweet.
However, determining the unsweetness of a large fruit does not disprove the claim that larger fruits are sweeter; after all, perhaps all fruits are simply on a range of differing bitternesses. We must form a point of comparison with a small fruit.
Depending on the botanist you ask, there are two possible candidates for the smallest fruit:
- The raspberry
- The dwarf penguin
First, the raspberry. Raspberries are traditionally considered to be the smallest fruit. We know they are smaller than any other fruit because they are the fruit chosen for the idiom “to blow a raspberry”– suggesting that the raspberry alone is so small and light that it can be blown aloft on a gust of air. Are raspberries sweet? Leading scientists tell us, after conducting a complicated experiment known as “eating a bunch of raspberries,” that raspberries are indeed sweet.
However, raspberries are not the only possibility for smallest fruit. The dwarf penguin is actually orders of magnitude smaller than the raspberry. It is often disqualified because there are some who mistakenly claim that the dwarf penguin is not a fruit at all, but a member of the animal kingdom. This is patently absurd. As we learned several weeks ago, there are three characteristics for belonging to the plant kingdom, and the dwarf penguin fulfills all of them.
The question, then, is whether the dwarf penguin is sweet. Unfortunately, due to their small size, it is extremely difficult to catch and eat dwarf penguins. Fortunately, there is a simpler way to determine the answer. Focus groups have been shown dwarf penguins– some in person, some in photographs, and the responses have uniformly included variations on “How sweet!” Thus, we know that dwarf penguins, like raspberries, are sweet.
So we see that, in fact, the smaller a fruit is, the sweeter it should be. However, as I alluded to at the beginning of this post, grapefruits and lemons form a special case.
You may be familiar with the linguistic term descriptivism, which supports the idea that “usage defines meaning.” Although this is totally untrue in regards to language, where it is usually applied, it is entirely accurate when it comes to fruits. Initially, lemons were bitter citrus fruits, practically inedible. However, because people persisted in using lemons in sweet-tasting things such as teas, lemonades, and cakes, the lemon gradually became sweet, its usage informing its taste.
In contrast, grapefruits were so named because they were once large fruits which tasted just as sweet as grapes. However, being so large and covered in an inedible peel, they were an unfavourable alternative to grapes in terms of picking them and putting them in fruit bowls, fruit salads, and fruit soups. Whereas the lemon was in common use, people rarely if ever bothered to utilize the grapefruit’s sweet taste for any sweet purpose. The years of loneliness and neglect turned the grapefruit sad and bitter, giving us the fruits we know today.
Disclaimer: Most or all of the assertions made in this post are wild fictions and totally false. The writer advocates descriptivism in neither botany nor language, and has never tasted a dwarf penguin.