Today most human consume wheat, rice, and to a less extent potato as the main carbohydrate source, even though there are other carbohydrate sources too (corn, barley, tapioca, etc). Why is that so?

Are wheat and rice easier to plant at a large scale? Or is it because the ancient societies which loved wheat or rice became the most powerful ones and became the trend setters?

Or maybe a mix of these two? I am not surprised if ancient societies which had a steady and large supply of carbohydrate would eventually become powerful.

  • 1
    There is some psychological factor also wheat because it's slightly sweeter and rice because it absorbs flavors of dish. Anyway the question seems more fit to vegetarianism stack exchange.vegetarianism.stackexchange.com/questions if it is not about history of food. Jun 3, 2021 at 3:29
  • One factor in the preference for wheat is gluten. This, plus yeast or other leavening agent, allows you to make bread. Even non-wheat breads usually have some percentage of wheat.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 3, 2021 at 5:10
  • Sure, I understand that some people find wheat and rice (including their derived products) are delicious. But I doubt much of humanity today rely on them for sustenance just because of that. At least, there has to be some influential trendsetters (like the reason people are obsessed with fermented grape juice a.k.a. wine) or those crops are simply more practical to help a societies survive (e.g. because they tolerate crazy weather better).
    – fajrian
    Jun 3, 2021 at 5:45
  • 1
    The most common carbohydrate grown is actually corn, which is mostly consumed as high fructose corn syrup. (Though the bulk of corn ends up either as animal feed or ethanol.) Jun 3, 2021 at 5:54
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1 Answer 1


You might want to read Chapter 8: Apples or Indians in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

That chapter essentially claims that those staple crops provide relatively high nutrition relative to their ease of cultivation, rate of growth, resources required, and yield. All of which equate to cheap and plentiful.

Things like how tolerant the crop is of climate and soil quality affect how easily you can grow it, if at all, as you migrate and things like how easy the seeds are to handle also affect how easy it is to cultivate. It's difficult collect and handle seeds if they are dust-like and spread by the wind.

There are more nutritious crops but they are more difficult to grow and/or produce less yield. If I remember right the book does comparisons of yield versus nutritional value and the most common crops had the highest overall score.

  • Thanks for the answer. The claim is not surprising, but I think it's a good thing. Modern wheat and rice agriculture indeed provides cheap and plentiful supply for the reasons you mentioned. But then, this is partially the result of thousands of years of selective breeding and many innovations from the largest and wealthiest societies. I didn't know the situation in the ancient era.
    – fajrian
    Jun 3, 2021 at 5:07
  • I'm not sure how rice qualifies though when you have to flood fields. Sure is tasty though.
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 3, 2021 at 5:09
  • Logically, what matters is the difficulty of growing it in a large scale. All ancient human settlements are near a fresh water source (river, spring, etc). I think it's not very difficult for a tribe to dig a small canal from the water source to the field.
    – fajrian
    Jun 3, 2021 at 5:20
  • 1
    Rice tends to be grown in places with high rainfall. Also, corn belongs on the list with wheat and rice. All three grains are calorie dense and easy to grow. Jun 3, 2021 at 5:58
  • @fajrian - Chapter 8 largely addresses their initial domestication too. GG&S is essentially this website's entire required reading list. You don't have to agree with everything in it, but you should read it. Get it from the library if you have to. We have a running joke that "Answered by Guns, Germs, & Steel" should be one of our question close reasons. That's likely where the "Too Basic" close vote came from.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 3, 2021 at 15:07

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