• 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 (Maize)

    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.

    food staple
    Bread made from wheat is a common staple food around the world.

    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.

    Tortilla Crisis
    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.

    Beer 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.

    agriculture Noun

    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.

    Aztec Noun

    people and culture native to Mexico and Central America.

    bourbon Noun

    variety of alcohol (whiskey) made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn.

    bulgur Noun

    wheat that has been boiled and dried.

    calorie Noun

    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.

    canjica Noun

    Brazilian dessert made with crushed corn kernels and sweetened milk or coconut milk.

    cassava Noun

    tuber originally native to South America. Also called manioc or yuca.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    cereal Noun

    type of grain, including wheat.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    coarse Adjective

    rough or composed of large, jagged particles.

    cob Noun

    thick, inedible core of corn in which kernels are embedded.

    consumption Noun

    process of using goods and services.

    corn noun, adjective

    tall cereal plant with large seeds (kernels) cultivated for food and industry. Also called maize.

    cornmeal Noun

    thick powder made from ground corn.

    cornstarch Noun

    flour made from corn, often used as a sweetener or thickener for foods. Also called corn flour.

    cultivate Verb

    to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

    dairy Adjective

    having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.

    diet Noun

    foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

    Encyclopedic Entry: diet
    domesticate Verb

    to tame or adapt for human use.

    dominant Adjective

    main or most important.

    edible Adjective

    able to be eaten and digested.

    energy Noun

    capacity to do work.

    Eskimo Noun

    people and culture native to the Arctic region of eastern Russia, the U.S. state of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

    ferment Verb

    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.

    flood Verb

    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.

    grain Noun

    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.

    hominy Noun

    kernels of corn with the husks and seed germ removed.

    Inca Noun

    people and culture native to the Andes Mountains and Pacific coast of South America.

    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    inexpensive Adjective

    not costing a lot of money.

    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    Latin America Noun

    South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

    legume Noun

    type of plant with a pod that splits, with seeds in the middle, such as peanuts.

    limewater Noun

    water that has been treated with calcium hydroxide, or lime.

    lye Noun

    toxic chemical, usually potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, used as a bleaching or cleaning agent.

    Maasai Noun

    people and culture native to eastern Africa.

    maize Noun


    malnutrition Noun

    lack of a balanced diet.

    manioc Noun

    root plant originally native to South America. Also called cassava.

    masa Noun

    dough made from dried corn or wheat flour, used in making tortillas.

    Maya Noun

    people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

    millet noun, adjective

    a type of grain.

    nutrient Noun

    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.

    poi Noun

    national dish of Hawaii, made with cooked and fermented taro.

    polar Adjective

    having to do with the North and/or South Pole.

    polenta Noun

    thick, boiled cornmeal common in Italian cooking.

    porridge Noun

    thick, pasty soup made from boiled cereals or beans.

    quinoa Noun

    grain-like plant with seeds that are cooked and eaten as a food staple in South America.

    rainforest Noun

    area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Rainforest
    reliable Adjective

    dependable or consistent.

    rice Noun

    grass cultivated for its seeds.

    sadza Noun

    thick, cooked cornmeal eaten as a food staple in Zimbabwe.

    seafood Noun

    fish and shellfish consumed by humans.

    sorghum Noun

    type of grain.

    starch Noun

    carbohydrate found in many vegetables and cereals.

    taro Noun

    type of tuber vegetable. Also called dasheen and cocoyam.

    temperate Adjective


    tortilla Noun

    flat, round bread made from corn or flour.

    transportation Noun

    movement of people or goods from one place to another.

    tropical Adjective

    existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

    tuber Noun

    thick part of an underground stem of a plant, such as a potato.

    vegetable Noun

    plant that is grown or harvested for food.

    versatile Adjective

    able to adjust to different conditions.

    waterlogged Adjective

    flooded or overflowing with water.

    wheat Noun

    most widely grown cereal in the world.

    whiskey Noun

    alcoholic beverage made from grain.

    yam Noun

    type of plant with an edible root.