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Display of various foods Good Food Display - NCI Visuals Online.jpg
Display of various foods

Food is any substance consumed by an organism for nutritional support. Food is usually of plant, animal, or fungal origin and contains essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals. The substance is ingested by an organism and assimilated by the organism's cells to provide energy, maintain life, or stimulate growth. Different species of animals have different feeding behaviours that satisfy the needs of their metabolisms and have evolved to fill a specific ecological niche within specific geographical contexts.


Omnivorous humans are highly adaptable and have adapted to obtain food in many different ecosystems. Humans generally use cooking to prepare food for consumption. The majority of the food energy required is supplied by the industrial food industry, which produces food through intensive agriculture and distributes it through complex food processing and food distribution systems. This system of conventional agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels, which means that the food and agricultural systems are one of the major contributors to climate change, accounting for as much as 37% of total greenhouse gas emissions. [1]

The food system has significant impacts on a wide range of other social and political issues, including sustainability, biological diversity, economics, population growth, water supply, and food security. Food safety and security are monitored by international agencies like the International Association for Food Protection, the World Resources Institute, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Food Information Council.

Definition and classification

Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support and energy to an organism. [2] [3] It can be raw, processed, or formulated and is consumed orally by animals for growth, health, or pleasure. Food is mainly composed of water, lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates. Minerals (e.g., salts) and organic substances (e.g., vitamins) can also be found in food. [4] Plants, algae, and some microorganisms use photosynthesis to make some of their own nutrients. [5] Water is found in many foods and has been defined as a food by itself. [6] Water and fiber have low energy densities, or calories, while fat is the most energy-dense component. [3] Some inorganic (non-food) elements are also essential for plant and animal functioning. [7]

Human food can be classified in various ways, either by related content or by how it is processed. [8] The number and composition of food groups can vary. Most systems include four basic groups that describe their origin and relative nutritional function: Vegetables and Fruit, Cereals and Bread, Dairy, and Meat. [9] Studies that look into diet quality group food into whole grains/cereals, refined grains/cereals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, eggs, dairy products, fish, red meat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages. [10] [11] [12] The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization use a system with nineteen food classifications: cereals, roots, pulses and nuts, milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, meat, insects, vegetables, fruits, fats and oils, sweets and sugars, spices and condiments, beverages, foods for nutritional uses, food additives, composite dishes and savoury snacks. [13]

Food sources

A typical aquatic food web Aquatic food web.jpg
A typical aquatic food web

In a given ecosystem, food forms a web of interlocking chains with primary producers at the bottom and apex predators at the top. [14] Other aspects of the web include detrovores (that eat detritis) and decomposers (that break down dead organisms). [14] Primary producers include algae, plants, bacteria and protists that acquire their energy from sunlight. [15] Primary consumers are the herbivores that consume the plants, and secondary consumers are the carnivores that consume those herbivores. Some organisms, including most mammals and birds, diet consists of both animals and plants, and they are considered omnivores. [16] The chain ends with the apex predators, the animals that have no known predators in its ecosystem. [17] Humans are considered apex predators. [18]

Humans are omnivores, finding sustenance in vegetables, fruits, cooked meat, milk, eggs, mushrooms and seaweed. [16] Cereal grain is a staple food that provides more food energy worldwide than any other type of crop. [19] Corn (maize), wheat, and rice account for 87% of all grain production worldwide. [20] [21] [22] Just over half of the world's crops are used to feed humans (55 percent), with 36 percent grown as animal feed and 9 percent for biofuels. [23] Fungi and bacteria are also used in the preparation of fermented foods like bread, wine, cheese and yogurt. [24]


During photosynthesis energy from the sun is absorbed and used to transform water and carbon dioxide in the air or soil into oxygen and glucose. The oxygen is then released, and the glucose stored as an energy reserve. [25] Photosynthetic plants, algae and certain bacteria often represent the lowest point the food chains, [26] [27] making photosynthesis the primary source of energy and food for nearly all life on earth. [28]

Plants also absorb important nutrients and minerals from the air, natural waters, and soil. [29] Carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are absorbed from the air or water and are the basic nutrients needed for plant survival. [30] The three main nutrients absorbed from the soil for plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, with other important nutrients including calcium, sulfur, magnesium, iron boron, chlorine, manganese, zinc, copper molybdenum and nickel. [30]


Bacteria and other microorganisms also form the lower rugs of the food chain. They obtain their energy from photosynthesis or by breaking down dead organisms, waste or chemical compounds. Some form symbiotic relationships with other organisms to obtain their nutrients. [31] Bacteria provide a source of food for protozoa, [32] who in turn provide a source of food for other organisms such as small invertebrates. [33] Other organisms that feed on bacteria include nematodes, fan worms, shellfish and a species of snail.

In the marine environment plankton (which includes bacteria, archaea, algae, protozoa and microscopic fungi) [34] provide a crucial source of food to many small and large aquatic organisms.

Without bacteria, life would scarcely exist because bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into nutritious ammonia. Ammonia is the precursor to proteins, nucleic acids, and most vitamins. Since the advent of industrial process for nitrogen fixation, the Haber-Bosch Process, the majority of ammonia in the world is human-made. [35]


Foods from plant sources Foods (cropped).jpg
Foods from plant sources

Plants as a food source are divided into seeds, fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts. [36] Where plants fall within these categories can vary, with botanically described fruits such as the tomato, squash, pepper and eggplant or seeds like peas commonly considered vegetables. [37] Food is a fruit if the part eaten is derived from the reproductive tissue, so seeds, nuts and grains are technically fruit. [38] [39] From a culinary perspective, fruits are generally considered the remains of botanically described fruits after grains, nuts, seeds and fruits used as vegetables are removed. [40] Grains can be defined as seeds that humans eat or harvest, with cereal grains (oats, wheat, rice, corn, barley, rye, sorghum and millet) belonging to the Poaceae (grass) family [41] and pulses coming from the Fabaceae (legume) family. [42] Whole grains are foods that contain all the elements of the original seed (bran, germ, and endosperm). [43] Nuts are dry fruits, distinguishable by their woody shell. [40]

Fleshy fruits (distinguishable from dry fruits like grain, seeds and nuts) can be further classified as stone fruits (cherries and peaches), pome fruits (apples, pears), berries (blackberry, strawberry), citrus (oranges, lemon), melons (watermelon, cantaloupe), Mediterranean fruits (grapes, fig), tropical fruits (banana, pineapple). [40] Vegetables refer to any other part of the plant that can be eaten, including roots, stems, leaves, flowers, bark or the entire plant itself. [44] These include root vegetables (potatoes and carrots), bulbs (onion family), flowers (cauliflower and broccoli), leaf vegetables (spinach and lettuce) and stem vegetables (celery and asparagus). [45] [44]

The carbohydrate, protein and lipid content of plants is highly variable. Carbohydrates are mainly in the form of starch, fructose, glucose and other sugars. [36] Most vitamins are found from plant sources, with exceptions of vitamin D and vitamin B12. Minerals can also be plentiful or not. Fruit can consist of up to 90% water, contain high levels of simple sugars that contribute to their sweet taste, and have a high vitamin C content. [36] [40] Compared to fleshy fruit (excepting Bananas) vegetables are high in starch, [46] potassium, dietary fiber, folate and vitamins and low in fat and calories. [47] Grains are more starch based [36] and nuts have a high protein, fibre, vitamin E and B content. [40] Seeds are a good source of food for animals because they are abundant and contain fibre and healthful fats, such as omega-3 fats. [48] [49] Complicated chemical interactions can enhance or depress bioavailability of certain nutrients. Phytates can prevent the release of some sugars and vitamins. [36]

Animals that only eat plants are called herbivores, with those that mostly just eat fruits known as frugivores, [50] leaves, while shoot eaters are folivores (pandas) and wood eaters termed xylophages (termites). [51] Frugivores include a diverse range of species from annelids to elephants, chimpanzees and many birds. [52] [53] [54] About 182 fish consume seeds or fruit. [55] Animals (domesticated and wild) use as many types of grasses that have adapted to different locations as their main source of nutrients. [56]

Humans eat thousands of plant species; there may be as many as 75,000 edible species of angiosperms, of which perhaps 7,000 are often eaten. [57] Plants can be processed into breads, pasta, cereals, juices and jams or raw ingredients such as sugar, herbs, spices and oils can be extracted. [36] Oilseeds are pressed to produce rich oils sunflower, flaxseed, rapeseed (including canola oil) and sesame. [58]

Many plants and animals have coevolved in such a way that the fruit is a good source of nutrition to the animal who then excretes the seeds some distance away, allowing greater dispersal. [59] Even seed predation can be mutually beneficial, as some seeds can survive the digestion process. [60] [61] Insects are major eaters of seeds, [48] with ants being the only real seed dispersers. [62] Birds, although being major dispersers, [63] only rarely eat seeds as a source of food and can be identified by their thick beak that is used to crack open the seed coat. [64] Mammals eat a more diverse range of seeds, as they are able to crush harder and larger seeds with their teeth. [65]


Various raw meats Meatfoodgroup.jpg
Various raw meats

Animals are used as food either directly or indirectly. This includes meat, eggs, shellfish and dairy products like milk and cheese. [66] They are an important source of protein and are considered complete proteins for human consumption as they contain all the essential amino acids that the human body needs. [67] One 4-ounce (110 g) steak, chicken breast or pork chop contains about 30 grams of protein. One large egg has 7 grams of protein. A 4-ounce (110 g) serving of cheese has about 15 grams of protein. And 1 cup of milk has about 8 grams of protein. [67] Other nutrients found in animal products include calories, fat, essential vitamins (including B12) and minerals (including zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium). [67]

Food products produced by animals include milk produced by mammary glands, which in many cultures is drunk or processed into dairy products (cheese, butter, etc.). Eggs laid by birds and other animals are eaten and bees produce honey, a reduced nectar from flowers that is used as a popular sweetener in many cultures. Some cultures consume blood, such as in blood sausage, as a thickener for sauces, or in a cured, salted form for times of food scarcity, and others use blood in stews such as jugged hare. [68]


Animals, specifically humans, typically have five different types of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. The differing tastes are important for distinguishing between foods that are nutritionally beneficial and those which may contain harmful toxins. [69] As animals have evolved, the tastes that provide the most energy are the most pleasant to eat while others are not enjoyable, [70] although humans in particular can acquire a preference for some substances which are initially unenjoyable. [69] Water, while important for survival, has no taste. [71]

Sweetness is almost always caused by a type of simple sugar such as glucose or fructose, or disaccharides such as sucrose, a molecule combining glucose and fructose. [72] Sourness is caused by acids, such as vinegar in alcoholic beverages. Sour foods include citrus, specifically lemons and limes. Sour is evolutionarily significant as it can signal a food that may have gone rancid due to bacteria. [73] Saltiness is the taste of alkali metal ions such as sodium and potassium. It is found in almost every food in low to moderate proportions to enhance flavor. Bitter taste is a sensation considered unpleasant characterised by having a sharp, pungent taste. Unsweetened dark chocolate, caffeine, lemon rind, and some types of fruit are known to be bitter. Umami, commonly described as savory, is a marker of proteins and characteristic of broths and cooked meats. [74] Foods that have a strong umami flavor include cheese, meat and mushrooms. [75]

Catfish have millions of taste buds covering their entire body. Channelcat.jpg
Catfish have millions of taste buds covering their entire body.

While most animals taste buds are located in their mouth, some insects taste receptors are located on their legs and some fish have taste buds along their entire body. [76] [77] Dogs, cats and birds have relatively few taste buds (chickens have about 30), [78] adult humans have between 2000 and 4000, [79] while catfish can have more than a million. [77] Herbivores generally have more than carnivores as they need to tell which plants may be poisonous. [78] Not all mammals share the same tastes: some rodents can taste starch, cats cannot taste sweetness, and several carnivores (including hyenas, dolphins, and sea lions) have lost the ability to sense up to four of the five taste modalities found in humans. [80]


Food is broken into nutrient components through digestive process. [81] Proper digestion consists of mechanical processes (chewing, peristalsis) and chemical processes (digestive enzymes and microorganisms). [82] [83] The digestive systems of herbivores and carnivores are very different as plant matter is harder to digest. Carnivores mouths are designed for tearing and biting compared to the grinding action found in herbivores. [84] Herbivores however have comparatively longer digestive tracts and larger stomachs to aid in digesting the cellulose in plants. [85] [86]

Food safety

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 600 million people worldwide get sick and 420,000 die each year from eating contaminated food. [87] [88] Diarrhea is the most common illness caused by consuming contaminated food, with about 550 million cases and 230,000 deaths from diarrhea each year. Children under five years of age account for 40% of the burden of foodborne illness, with 125,000 deaths each year. [88] [89]

A 2003 World Health Organization (WHO) report concluded that about 30% of reported food poisoning outbreaks in the WHO European Region occur in private homes. [90] According to the WHO and CDC, in the USA alone, annually, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. [91]

From 2011 to 2016, on average, there were 668,673 cases of foodborne illness and 21 deaths each year. [92] [93] [94] [95] In addition, during this period, 1,007 food poisoning outbreaks with 30,395 cases of food poisoning were reported. [88]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cooking</span> Preparing food using heat

Cooking, also known as cookery or professionally as the culinary arts, is the art, science and craft of using heat to make food more palatable, digestible, nutritious, or safe. Cooking techniques and ingredients vary widely, from grilling food over an open fire, to using electric stoves, to baking in various types of ovens, reflecting local conditions. Cooking is an aspect of all human societies and a cultural universal.

A macrobiotic diet is a fad diet based on ideas about types of food drawn from Zen Buddhism. The diet tries to balance the supposed yin and yang elements of food and cookware. Major principles of macrobiotic diets are to reduce animal products, eat locally grown foods that are in season, and consume meals in moderation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nutrition</span> Provision to cells and organisms to support life

Nutrition is the biochemical and physiological process by which an organism uses food to support its life. It provides organisms with nutrients, which can be metabolized to create energy and chemical structures. Failure to obtain the required amount of nutrients causes malnutrition. Nutritional science is the study of nutrition, though it typically emphasizes human nutrition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Food pyramid (nutrition)</span> Visual representation of optimal servings from basic groups

A food pyramid is a representation of the optimal number of servings to be eaten each day from each of the basic food groups. The first pyramid was published in Sweden in 1974. The 1992 pyramid introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was called the "Food Guide Pyramid" or "Eating Right Pyramid". It was updated in 2005 to "MyPyramid", and then it was replaced by "MyPlate" in 2011.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dog food</span> Food intended for consumption by dogs usually made from meat

Dog food is specifically formulated and intended for consumption by dogs and other related canines. Dogs are considered to be omnivores with a carnivorous bias. They have the sharp, pointed teeth and shorter gastrointestinal tracts of carnivores, better suited for the consumption of meat than of vegetable substances, yet also have ten genes that are responsible for starch and glucose digestion, as well as the ability to produce amylase, an enzyme that functions to break down carbohydrates into simple sugars – something that obligate carnivores like cats lack. Dogs evolved the ability living alongside humans in agricultural societies, as they managed on scrap leftovers and excrement from humans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phytochemical</span> Chemical compounds produced by plants

Phytochemicals are chemical compounds produced by plants, generally to help them resist fungi, bacteria and plant virus infections, and also consumption by insects and other animals. The name comes from Greek φυτόν (phyton) 'plant'. Some phytochemicals have been used as poisons and others as traditional medicine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Raw foodism</span> Diet of uncooked and unprocessed food

Raw foodism, also known as rawism or a raw food diet, is the dietary practice of eating only or mostly food that is uncooked and unprocessed. Depending on the philosophy, or type of lifestyle and results desired, raw food diets may include a selection of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, meat, and dairy products. The diet may also include simply processed foods, such as various types of sprouted seeds, cheese, and fermented foods such as yogurts, kefir, kombucha, or sauerkraut, but generally not foods that have been pasteurized, homogenized, or produced with the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, and food additives.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Plant-based diet</span> Diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods

A plant-based diet is a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods. Plant-based diets encompass a wide range of dietary patterns that contain low amounts of animal products and high amounts of fiber-rich plant products such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. They do not need to be vegan or vegetarian, but are defined in terms of low frequency of animal food consumption.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vegetarian nutrition</span> Nutritional and human health aspects of vegetarian diets

Vegetarian nutrition is the set of health-related challenges and advantages of vegetarian diets.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cat food</span> Food for consumption by cats

Cat food is food specifically formulated and designed for consumption by cats. As obligate carnivores, cats have specific requirements for their dietary nutrients, namely nutrients found only in meat or synthesised, such as taurine and Vitamin A. Certain nutrients, including many vitamins and amino acids, are degraded by the temperatures, pressures and chemical treatments used during manufacture, and hence must be added after manufacture to avoid nutritional deficiency. Cat food is typically sold as dry kibble, or as wet food in cans and pouches.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cereal germ</span> Reproductive part of a grass seed

The germ of a cereal grain is the part that develops into a plant; it is the seed embryo. Along with bran, germ is often a by-product of the milling that produces refined grain products. Cereal grains and their components, such as wheat germ oil, rice bran oil, and maize bran, may be used as a source from which vegetable oil is extracted, or used directly as a food ingredient. The germ is retained as an integral part of whole-grain foods. Non-whole grain methods of milling are intended to isolate the endosperm, which is ground into flour, with removal of both the husk (bran) and the germ. Removal of bran produces a flour with a white rather than a brown color and eliminates fiber. The germ is rich in polyunsaturated fats and so germ removal improves the storage qualities of flour.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Healthy diet</span> Type of diet

A healthy diet is a diet that maintains or improves overall health. A healthy diet provides the body with essential nutrition: fluid, macronutrients such as protein, micronutrients such as vitamins, and adequate fibre and food energy.

Raw feeding is the practice of feeding domestic dogs, cats, and other animals a diet consisting primarily of uncooked meat, edible bones, and organs. The ingredients used to formulate raw diets vary. Some pet owners choose to make home-made raw diets to feed their animals but commercial raw diets are also available.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Milk substitute</span> Alternative substance that resembles milk

A milk substitute is any substance that resembles milk and can be used in the same ways as milk. Such substances may be variously known as non-dairy beverage, nut milk, grain milk, legume milk, mock milk and alternative milk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bird food</span> Food intended for consumption by wild and domestic birds

Bird food or bird seed is food intended for consumption by wild, commercial, or pet birds. It is typically composed of seeds, nuts, dry fruits, flour, and may be enriched with vitamins and proteins.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Omnivore</span> Animal that can eat and survive on both plants and animals

An omnivore is an animal that has the ability to eat and survive on both plant and animal matter. Obtaining energy and nutrients from plant and animal matter, omnivores digest carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber, and metabolize the nutrients and energy of the sources absorbed. Often, they have the ability to incorporate food sources such as algae, fungi, and bacteria into their diet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vegan nutrition</span> Nutritional and human health aspects of vegan diets

Vegan nutrition refers to the nutritional and human health aspects of vegan diets. A well-planned vegan diet is suitable to meet all recommendations for nutrients in every stage of human life. Vegan diets tend to be higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and phytochemicals; and lower in calories, saturated fat, iron, cholesterol, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Staple food</span> Food that is eaten routinely and considered a dominant portion of a standard diet

A staple food, food staple, or simply staple, is a food that is eaten often and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for an individual or a population group, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. For humans, a staple food of a specific society may be eaten as often as every day or every meal, and most people live on a diet based on just a small variety of food staples. Specific staples vary from place to place, but typically are inexpensive or readily available foods that supply one or more of the macronutrients and micronutrients needed for survival and health: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins. Typical examples include grains, seeds, nuts and root vegetables. Among them, cereals, legumes and tubers account for about 90% of the world's food calorie intake.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vegetarian and vegan dog diet</span> Adequate meat-free or animal-free nutrition

As in the human practice of veganism, vegan dog foods are those formulated with the exclusion of ingredients that contain or were processed with any part of an animal, or any animal byproduct. Vegan dog food may incorporate the use of fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes including soya, nuts, vegetable oils, as well as any other non-animal based foods.


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Further reading