The Starchy Staples in World Food Consumption


Food and dietary habits vary from region to region; mostly guided by cultural preferences, access to resources and income levels. It has often found that western countries rarely ever complain of malnutrition problem, while it persists in third world countries. The reason for this is grounded in income levels and access to resources. Most developing countries heavily rely on pulses and beans for calories while most western-nations exhibit a greater taste for meat and poultry. This demonstrates on the one hand, cultural tastes while on the other it also says a great deal about income and poverty. In a report and survey revealed in 1980s, it was found that there existed noticeable differences in per capital supply of calories and protein in different regions of the world (see Table 1). It was observed that developing countries had calories intake 9% lower than the world average. The developed countries on the other hand had 27% higher calorie intake than the world average. The countries that lied below the world average in calorie intake existed in the four regions of Africa, Far Easter, Middle Easter, and Latin America.

Table 1 Average Per Capita Food Supply, 1983-85







Economic Class

and Region




Developed Countries




Developing Countries














Economic Class

and Region




Developed Countries







Developing Countries














Source: ERS/USDA, Agriculture and Trade Indicators Branch, January 1989.

Note: All percentages are based on world totals.

It is feared the rising growth of population would result in even higher disparities in world nutrition. However some significant changes have been noticed in food consumption and dietary habits in the last few decades which indicate that with changes in income levels in some developing countries, nutrition levels are also increasing. People with more disposable income in third world countries are spending more on food of their choice thus altering their dietary preferences.

Before the industrial revolution, most world regions exhibited similar food consumption patterns. There were broad similarities in what people ate and the consumption levels were more or less uniform around the globe. Total calorie supply was relatively low since most countries could consume between 1800 and 2300 calories per capita per day (Grigg, 1995). People relied heavily on cereals and potatoes which were seen as good sources of energy supply. Meat was also consumed and it contributed more than 15% of total calorie intake. The dietary patterns in western world were similar to that of the rest of the world. Even developing countries were consuming the same food that European nations were. The reason for this was poverty and cereals and pulses were seen as the cheapest and thus most affordable source of energy.

However these similarities vanished to a large extent in 19th century due to industrial revolution. Agricultural productivity increased because of technological changes and price of food came down resulting in higher consumption of agricultural goods. At the same time, income levels went up and there was a marked improvement in transport that made it possible to transfer goods from one location to another.

These changes led to a dramatic change in food choices in Europe till 1950s. Total calorie intake increased by 50%. Initially European countries increased their intake of starch in the form of bread and potatoes. Once their initial hunger was satisfied, they started adding variety to their food choices and thus included sugar, oils and fats, fruit and vegetables, and also meat and dairy goods. With this expansion in food choices, nutritional history took a huge turn as Europe started relying less on starchy staples. (Grigg, 1996)

By 1960s, it was seen that there existed some wide differences between dietary habits of various regions. The world was still however more depended on plant foods for energy than on meat or animal food. Total calorie intake was higher in western and developed countries- almost 55% more than developing countries. Protein intake was also 83% more as developing countries depended heavily on starchy staples. With increase in income, reliance on starchy foods is reduced as livestock products become more accessible.

Since 1962, however, there have been significant steady increases in income levels of the developing countries which have led to a change in dietary habits (World Bank, 1990). The changes thus witnessed are similar to the ones Western countries experienced during the 19th century. Except in Africa, where income level did not increase, every developing country has witnessed positive change in its nutritional habits. Consumption of all types of food including dairy and meat products has increased and Asia has shown greatest improvement. In Latin America, however, it appears food consumption and nutritional patterns have remained more or less static since 1980s. Sugar intake has remained unchanged and consumption of starchy staples has decreased. Japan and Korea have been the slowest to accept change or change their dietary habits. Even though these two are highly prosperous nations, still they food choices are still markedly different from the rest of the world. Rice is still very important part of their diet and consumption of animal foods is relatively low. (FAO, 1996b)

Western countries have also shown changes in nutritional preferences since 1960s. Calorie intake is higher in five prosperous regions of the world and has continued to rise. Intake of vegetable oils and fats has also risen along with consumption of meat which has increased everywhere except in the region of Australasia. Cereals are more popular in North America and some European countries now than they were before 1960s and consumption of sugar has declined in parts of Western Europe and Australasia. Consumption of alcohol and related beverages has declined in developed countries since 1970s along with dairy products that showed decline in North America, Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R. (FAO, 1996b).


1. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1996a The sixth world food survey. Rome: FAO.

2. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1996b. Food balance sheets 1961-1994. Rome: FAO.

3. Grigg, D. 1995 The nutritional transition in Western Europe. Jl Hist. Geogr. 21: 247-61.

4. Grigg, D. 1996 The starchy staples in world food consumption. Ann. Ass. Am. Geogr. 86: 412-31.

5. World Bank, 1990 World development report 1990. London: O.U.P.

6. ERS/USDA. 1989 Agriculture and Trade Indicators Branch, January.

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