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Food and drink

Most of the global population rely on crops from just 30 plant species in their diet. However, many more species are important food sources - around 7,000 plant species have been used by humans for food - and fungi also play a vital role in food production.


Humans rely on plants to provide them with the vast majority of their food. Staple crops such as rice, wheat, cassava, potatoes and chickpeas all come from plants. Without plants, luxuries such as chocolate, honey, sugar, nuts, herbs and spices would not be available to us.

Did you know?

Cola flavoured drinks first became popular in the late 19th century when a pharmacist combined extracts from kola nuts (Cola species) and coca leaves (Erythroxylum coca) with sugar, carbonated water and other flavourings to create a ‘brain tonic’.

Plants can supply all the essential parts of a healthy human diet. Carbohydrates such as starch (a valuable energy source) are found in seeds, grains and tubers (for example oats, rice and potatoes). Pulses, from the pea and bean family (Leguminosae) provide us with proteins. The rich variety of vegetable oils that can be obtained from plants (such as olive oil from Olea europea) contribute to the fats needed in a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables are valuable sources of vitamins and minerals.


Coffee and tea, and even the sugar you add to sweeten them, are sourced from plants. About 1.5 billion cups of coffee and over 3 billion cups of tea are consumed worldwide every day, so the plants from which these drinks are produced are clearly important to many people’s lives.

All alcoholic drinks are made using plant material. Beer, perhaps the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, is produced using malted cereal grains. Hops (Humulus lupulus) can also be added to provide flavour and the characteristic bitter taste. Many alcoholic drinks are fruit-based, such as wine, which is made using grapes, and cider, from apples.

Other drinks, including fruit juices, cordials, hot drinking chocolate, colas and coconut milk, also owe their existence to plants.

Herbs and spices

Chilli pepper plant at Kew Gardens

The herbs and spices used to add flavour to our food are obtained from a wide range of plant parts, including roots, fruits, leaves and seeds. The aromas of herbs and spices are the result of volatile chemicals that are released, for example, when they are crushed or chewed, or on ripening. Popular herbs and spices include ginger, lemongrass, chilli pepper, rosemary, oregano and allspice.

Capsicum fruits, including the chilli pepper, have been part of the human diet for at least 10,000 years.


Fungi, especially the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, provide us with numerous foods and beverages, including staples like bread and beer. Button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) is one of the most commonly cultivated and widely consumed mushrooms in the world, but there are many more edible species.