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.
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 3.5 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 3,000 years ago. 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 like the Ganges and the Mekong. "Deepwater 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, China, India, the United States, Russia, and France are among the largest wheat producers in the world.
The majority of breads are made with wheat flour. Wheat flour is also used in pasta, pastries, crackers, breakfast cereals, and noodles. 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 rainforests 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 rainforest 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 Hawai'i, 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.
Cultures indigenous to polar climates, where fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce, rely on meat and fish as food staples. 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.