A food staple is a food that makes up the dominant part of a population’s diet. Food staples are eaten regularly—even daily—and supply a major proportion of a person’s energy and nutritional needs.
Food staples vary from place to place, depending on the food sources available. Most food staples are inexpensive, plant-based foods. They are usually full of calories for energy. Cereal grains and tubers are the most common food staples.
There are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just 15 of them provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake. Rice, corn (maize), and wheat make up two-thirds of this. Other food staples include millet and sorghum; tubers such as potatoes, cassava, yams, and taro; and animal products such as meat, fish, and dairy.
Food staples traditionally depend on what plants are native to a region. However, with improvements in agriculture, food storage, and transportation, some food staples are changing. For example, in the islands of the South Pacific, roots and tubers such as taro are traditional food staples. Since 1970, however, their consumption has fallen, while consumption of cereal grains not native to tropical islands has increased by about 40 percent.
Foods that were particular to one region are becoming popular in regions where they don’t traditionally grow. Quinoa, for instance, is a grain-like plant that is grown high in the Andes Mountains of South America. Today, quinoa is popular far outside of Latin America.
Although staple foods are nutritious, they do not provide the full, healthy range of nutrients. People must add other foods to their diets to avoid malnutrition.
Rice is a food staple for more than 1.6 billion people around the world, particularly in Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa. Rice has been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years. Scientists believe people first domesticated rice in India or Southeast Asia. Rice arrived in Japan in about 100 BCE. The Portuguese most likely introduced it into South America in the 16th century.
Today, the world’s largest rice producers are China, India, and Indonesia. Outside of Asia, Brazil is the largest rice producer. Rice grows in warm, wet climates. It thrives in waterlogged soil, such as in the flood plains of Asian rivers such as the Ganges and the Mekong. “Floating rice” is a variety of rice that is adapted to deep flooding, and is grown in eastern Pakistan, Vietnam, and Burma.
Corn, known outside the United States as maize, is native to Central America, where it was domesticated by the Aztecs and Mayans. Corn remains the most widely grown crop in the Americas today. The United States is the world’s largest corn grower, producing more than 40 percent of the world’s corn. China, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina also produce large amounts of corn.
Corn is used in a variety of ways, and can be stored relatively easily. This is why it is such a popular food staple.
Dried, ground corn is called cornmeal. Many cultures make porridge out of cornmeal, including polenta in Italy and sadza in Zimbabwe. Cornmeal is also used to make cornbread, or treated with limewater to make masa, the main ingredient in tortillas.
Corn kernels can be soaked in lye to produce hominy. Coarsely ground hominy is used to make grits, a popular food in the southeastern United States. Grits are a popular breakfast food, as are corn flakes and other cereals made from corn. Brazilians make a dessert called canjica by boiling corn kernels in sweetened milk.
In the Americas and the United Kingdom, many people like to boil, grill, or roast whole ears of corn and simply eat the kernels off the cob. Cooked kernels may also be removed from the cob and served as a vegetable. Certain varieties of corn kernels, when dried, will explode when heated, producing popcorn.
Corn is also used to produce corn oil, sweeteners such as corn syrup, and cornstarch, which is used as a sweetener and thickening agent in home cooking and processed food products. Alcohol from fermented corn is the source of bourbon whiskey.
Wheat was first domesticated in the Middle East, in the area known as the Cradle of Civilization near what is now Iraq. Domesticating this reliable, versatile staple food was key to the development of agriculture.
Wheat grows well in temperate climates, even those with a short growing season. Today, the largest wheat producers are China, India, the United States, Russia, and France.
The majority of breads are made with wheat flour. Wheat flour is also used in pasta, pastries, crackers, breakfast cereals, and noodles. Starting in the 19th century, wheat joined corn as a popular ingredient for making tortillas. Wheat can be crushed into bulgur, which has a high nutritional value and is often used in soups and pastries in the Middle East.
Roots and Tubers
In addition to cereal grains, roots and tubers are common food staples, particularly in tropical regions. Yams are an important food in the rain forests of West Africa. They are most commonly peeled, boiled, and pounded into a pulp to make a dough called fufu.
Cassava, also known as manioc, is a food staple for more than 500 million people. This tuber originated in the Amazon rain forest of South America, and was introduced into West Africa in the 16th century. Now, cassava is important to the diets of many people in Latin America and Africa.
Taro is a staple food on some of the Pacific islands, such as Hawaii, Fiji, and New Caledonia, and also in West Africa. The Hawaiian national dish, poi, is a thick paste made from taro that has been boiled, mashed, and fermented.
Potatoes are native to the cold climate of the Andes Mountains. They were the food staple of the Inca Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Introduced to Europe by explorers of the 16th century, potatoes are now a food staple in Europe and parts of the Americas. The leading potato producers are China, Russia, India, the United States, and Ukraine.
Other Food Staples
Although cereal grains and tubers make up the majority of the world’s food staples, they are not the only dominant foods in the world. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania have traditionally relied on food provided by cattle for the majority of their diet. Milk, meat, and blood are traditional ingredients in Maasai diets. Today, grain has become a staple food of the Maasai, but they still drink large quantities of milk—about 1 liter per person per day.
Cultures indigenous to polar climates, where fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce, rely on meat and fish as food staples. Often, seafood provides the majority of their energy and nutrient needs. For example, Eskimo tribes of Alaska and northern Canada have traditionally eaten seal, walrus, and whale meat in addition to many kinds of fish.
In tropical climates, people often rely on starchy fruits such as plantains and breadfruit. In parts of Africa and Asia, especially India, legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas are staple foods.
Not Your Average Milkshake
For special celebrations, the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania drink a mixture of milk and cow's blood.
Goddess of Grain
The Roman goddess, Ceres, was considered the protector of grain. The term "cereal" comes from her name.
Corn is more than just a food crop. In recent years, corn has been used to make ethanol, a fuel that emits less pollution than gasoline. Unfortunately, the rising demand for ethanol has increased the cost of corn. In 2007, rising corn prices caused a "tortilla crisis" in Mexico, where corn-based tortillas are a major food staple.
Wheat, a food staple around the world, can be germinated and dried to create malt. Malt is a key ingredient in beer, one of the first beverages created by people. Ancient beer was not carbonated and was probably as thick as a light syrup. It had a very low alcohol content, but was high in starch and was made from specially prepared loaves of bread.
In ancient Egypt, workers on the pyramids were often paid in beer. Other starchy, high-calorie foods such as bread and crackers were food staples. Thirsty workers were simply "drinking their bread."
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry adapt Verb
to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture alcohol Noun
chemical compound, usually ethanol or methanol, generated by fermentation and used for fuel, hygiene, medicine, and food.
people and culture native to Mexico and Central America.
variety of alcohol (whiskey) made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn.
wheat that has been boiled and dried.
unit of energy from food, equal to the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
Brazilian dessert made with crushed corn kernels and sweetened milk or coconut milk.
tuber originally native to South America. Also called manioc or yuca.
cows and oxen.
type of grain, including wheat.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate coarse Adjective
rough or composed of large, jagged particles.
thick, inedible core of corn in which kernels are embedded.
process of using goods and services.
corn noun, adjective
tall cereal plant with large seeds (kernels) cultivated for food and industry. Also called maize.
thick powder made from ground corn.
flour made from corn, often used as a sweetener or thickener for foods. Also called corn flour.
to prepare and nurture the land for crops.
having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.
foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.
Encyclopedic Entry: diet domesticate Verb
to tame or adapt for human use.
main or most important.
able to be eaten and digested.
capacity to do work.
people and culture native to the Arctic region of eastern Russia, the U.S. state of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
to undergo the natural or artificial process of fermentation, or changing a food's sugars into alcohols.
floating rice Noun
variety of rice that can grow in flooded fields. Also called deep water rice.
to overflow or cover in water or another liquid.
flood plain Noun
flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.
Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain food Noun
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
Encyclopedic Entry: food food staple Noun
food that is eaten frequently, either fresh or stored for use all year.
Encyclopedic Entry: food staple fufu Noun
West African food staple made by boiling and pounding starchy root vegetables into a thick paste.
harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.
Encyclopedic Entry: grain grits Plural Noun
ground hominy, often eaten boiled or fried.
growing season Noun
period in the year when crops and other plants grow rapidly.
kernels of corn with the husks and seed germ removed.
people and culture native to the Andes Mountains and Pacific coast of South America.
characteristic to or of a specific place.
Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous inexpensive Adjective
not costing a lot of money.
body of land surrounded by water.
Encyclopedic Entry: island Latin America Noun
South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
type of plant with a pod that splits, with seeds in the middle, such as peanuts.
water that has been treated with calcium hydroxide, or lime.
toxic chemical, usually potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, used as a bleaching or cleaning agent.
people and culture native to eastern Africa.
lack of a balanced diet.
root plant originally native to South America. Also called cassava.
dough made from dried corn or wheat flour, used in making tortillas.
people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.
millet noun, adjective
a type of grain.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient nutrition Noun
process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.
national dish of Hawaii, made with cooked and fermented taro.
having to do with the North and/or South Pole.
thick, boiled cornmeal common in Italian cooking.
thick, pasty soup made from boiled cereals or beans.
grain-like plant with seeds that are cooked and eaten as a food staple in South America.
area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.
Encyclopedic Entry: Rainforest reliable Adjective
dependable or consistent.
grass cultivated for its seeds.
thick, cooked cornmeal eaten as a food staple in Zimbabwe.
fish and shellfish consumed by humans.
type of grain.
carbohydrate found in many vegetables and cereals.
type of tuber vegetable. Also called dasheen and cocoyam.
flat, round bread made from corn or flour.
movement of people or goods from one place to another.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
thick part of an underground stem of a plant, such as a potato.
plant that is grown or harvested for food.
able to adjust to different conditions.
flooded or overflowing with water.
most widely grown cereal in the world.
alcoholic beverage made from grain.
type of plant with an edible root.