Staple Food

Naimul Hamis

If you are traveling around the world, the problem you will face most is perhaps in having meal. The nature of food and cooking is somewhat different in almost all the countries. One of my friends went to USA in a study tour and lived with a family there. They asked my friend about our staple food and he said that it is rice. So, the family wanted to give him a big surprise by cooking rice in one of his daily meals. My friend was really astonished because they gave him nothing but a full plate of rice only, no curries were served!

A staple food is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutrient needs. One of the important characteristics of staple food is that they are usually inexpensive and/or readily available. Also these foods supply one or more of the three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. Staple foods are eaten everyday or every meal. The concept of staple food lies in ancient history. Usually the grains, tubers, legumes or seeds are considered as staple food and one main reason behind selecting these as staple foods is the easiness in storing for a long period of time without decay.

Most people live on a diet based on one or more of the following staples: rice, wheat, maize (corn), millet, sorghum, roots and tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro), and animal products such as meat, milk, eggs, cheese and fish. A staple food does not meet a population’s total nutritional needs: a variety of foods is required. This is particularly the case for children and other nutritionally vulnerable groups.

Over the centuries, many wild plants were tried as food; some proved better than the others. Some became favorites of the people and were tried for cultivation. If we compare the crop plant and its wild relative, we can see that there are noticeable differences. These differences are not in the edible part alone. Thus, for example, the crop sunflower is bigger flowered, larger leafed and thicker stemmed than its wild variety. Have you noticed the firm solid heart of a cabbage? The wild ancestors of the cabbage have only loose leaves in the center. How have these changes occurred? Early farmers realized that there were always variations among a given species. They observed that bigger grains of wheat and larger groundnuts were possible. These changes in plants can occur because of two reasons, natural breeding between closely related species and changes (mutations) in the plant cells. A farmer would pick better plants and use them for replanting next time. So, through a slow process spread over years, crops were selected. In fact, some undesirable things were also removed from the plants. For example, earlier wild pears had spines and wild potatoes were bitter. Through crop selection, such varieties were eliminated. Modern agriculture is based on much faster ways of selecting the “better” varieties of crops for staple foods. This procedure is called `plant breeding’ and is based on earlier results of inheritance of plants.

Typically, staple foods are well adapted to the growth conditions in their source areas. For example, they may be tolerant of drought, pests or soils low in nutrients. Farmers often rely on staple crops to reduce risk and increase the resilience of their agricultural systems.

Of more than 50 000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three rice, maize and wheat – making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4 000 million people.

Roots and tubers are important staples for over 1 000 million people in the developing world. They account for roughly 40 percent of the food eaten by half the population of sub-Saharan Africa. They are high in carbohydrates, calcium and vitamin C, but low in protein. Since 1970, consumption of roots and tubers in the Pacific Islands has fallen by 8 percent, while cereal consumption jumped by 40 percent, from 61 to 85 kilograms per person.

Many countries are experiencing a similar shift away from traditional foods, but there is growing recognition of the importance of traditional food crops in nutrition. After years of being considered “poor people’s foods” some of these crops are now enjoying a comeback. Cassava, considered a minor crop at the turn of the century, has now become one of the developing world’s most important staples providing a basic diet for around 500 million people. Plantings are increasing faster than any other crop. Quinoa, a grain grown in the high Andes, is also gaining wider acceptance even outside of Latin America with the introduction of new varieties and improved processing.

Some selected food crops

1. Chinese-Japanese region
bamboo, millet, mustard, orange, peach, rice, soybean, tea

2. Indochinese-Indonesian region
bamboo, banana, coconut, grapefruit, mango, rice, sugarcane, yam

3. Australian region
macadamia nut

4. Hindustani region
banana, bean, chick-pea, citrus, cucumber, eggplant, mango, mustard, rice, sugarcane

5. Central Asian region
apple, apricot, bean, carrot, grape, melon, onion, pea, pear, plum, rye, spinach, walnut, wheat

6. Near Eastern region
almond, barley, fig, grape, lentil, melon, pea, pistachio, rye, wheat

7. Mediterranean region
beetroot, cabbage, celery, fava bean, grape, lettuce, oats, olive, radish, wheat

8. African region
coffee, millet, oil palm, okra, sorghum, teff, wheat, yam

9. European-Siberian region
apple, cherry, chicory, hops, lettuce, pear

10. South American region
cacao, cassava, groundout, lima bean, papaya, pineapple, potato, squash, sweet potato, tomato

11. Central American and Mexican region
french bean, maize, pepper/chill), potato, squash

12. North American region
blueberry, sunflower

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