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Cereal crops are mostly grasses cultivated for their edible grains or seeds (technically a type of fruit called a caryopsis). Cereal grains are grown in greater quantities worldwide than any other type of crop and provide more food energy to the human race than any other crop. In some developing nations, cereal grains constitute practically the entire diet of common folk. In developed nations, cereal consumption is more moderate but still substantial. The word cereal derives from Ceres, the name of the Roman goddess of harvest and agriculture. Grains are traditionally called corn in the United Kingdom, though that word became specified for maize in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
The following table shows annual production of major cereal grains, in 1961 and 2005, ranked by 2005 production. All but buckwheat and quinoa are true grasses (these two are pseudocereals).
Maize, wheat and rice, between them, accounted for 87% of all grain production, worldwide, and 43% of all food calories in 2003. Other grains that are important in some places, but that have little production globally (and are not included in FAO statistics), include:
- Teff, popular in Ethiopia but scarcely known elsewhere
- Wild rice, grown in small amounts in North America
- Spelt, a close relative of wheat
- Grain amaranth, ancient pseudocereal, formerly the staple crop of the Aztec Empire
- Kañiwa, close relative of quinoa, to which it is quite similar
While each individual species has its own peculiarities, the cultivation of all cereals crops is similar. All are annual plants; consequently one planting yields one harvest. Wheat, rye, triticale, oats, barley, and spelt are the cool-season cereals. These are hardy plants that grow well in moderate weather and cease to grow in hot weather (approximately 30 °C but this varies by species and variety). The other warm-season cereals are tender and prefer hot weather.
Barley and rye are the hardiest cereals, able to overwinter in the subarctic and Siberia. Wheat is the most popular. Many cool-season cereals are grown in the tropics. However, some are only grown in cooler highlands, where it may be possible to grow multiple crops in a year.
The warm-season cereals are grown in tropical lowlands year-round and in temperate climates during the frost-free season. Rice is commonly grown in flooded fields, though some strains are grown on dry land. Other warm climate cereals, such as sorghum, are adapted to arid conditions.
Cool-season cereals are well-adapted to temperate climates. Most varieties of a particular species are either winter or spring types. Winter varieties are sown in the autumn, germinate and grow vegetatively, then become dormant during winter. They resume growing in the springtime and mature in late spring or early summer. This cultivation system makes optimal use of water and frees the land for another crop early in the growing season. Winter varieties do not flower until springtime because they require vernalization (exposure to low temperature for a genetically determined length of time). Where winters are too warm for vernalization or exceed the hardiness of the crop (which varies by species and variety), farmers grow spring varieties. Spring cereals are planted in early springtime and mature later that same summer, without vernalization. Spring cereals typically require more irrigation and yield less than winter cereals.
Once the cereal plants have grown their seeds, they have completed their life cycle. The plants die and become brown and dry. As soon as the parent plants and their seed kernels are reasonably dry, harvest can begin.
In developed countries, cereal crops are universally machine-harvested, typically using a combine harvester, which cuts, threshes, and winnows the grain during a single pass across the field. In developing countries, a variety of harvesting methods are in use, from combines to hand tools such as scythes.
If a crop is harvested during wet weather, the grain may not dry adequately in the field to prevent spoilage during its storage. In this case, the grain is sent to a dehydrating facility, where artificial heat dries it.
In North America, farmers commonly deliver their newly harvested grain to a grain elevator, a large storage facility that consolidates the crops of many farmers. The farmer may sell the grain at the time of delivery or maintain ownership of a share of grain in the pool for later sale.
Cereal grains supply most of their food energy as starch. They are also a significant source of protein, though the amino acid balance is not optimal. Whole grains (see below) are good sources of dietary fiber, essential fatty acids, and other important nutrients.
Rice is eaten as cooked entire grains, although rice flour is also produced. Oats are rolled, ground, or cut into bits (steel-cut oats) and cooked into porridge. Most other cereals are ground into flour or meal, that is milled. The outer layers of bran and germ are removed (see seed). This lessens the nutritional value but makes the grain more resistant to degradation and makes the grain more appealing to many palates. Health-conscious people tend to prefer whole grains, which are not milled. Overconsumption of milled cereals is sometimes blamed for obesity. Milled grains do keep better because the outer layers of the grains are rich in rancidity-prone fats. The waste from milling is sometimes mixed into a prepared animal feed.
Once (optionally) milled and ground, the resulting flour is made into bread, pasta, desserts, dumplings, and many other products. Besides cereals, flour is sometimes made from potatoes, chestnuts and pulses (especially chickpeas).
Cereals are the main source of energy providing about 350 kcal per 100 grams. Cereal proteins are typically poor in nutritive quality, being deficient in essential amino acid lysine. The proteins of maize are particularly poor, being deficient in lysine and tryptophan (a precursor of niacin). Rice proteins are richer in lysine than other common cereal proteins and for this reason, rice protein is considered to be of better quality. Rice is a good source of B group vitamins, especially thiamine. It is devoid of vitamins A, D, C and is a poor source of calcium and iron.
Certain grains, including quinoa and grain amaranth, are exceptionally nutrious. Quinoa was classified as a "supercrop" by the United Nations because of its high protein content (12-18%). Quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete foodstuff.
In English, cold breakfast cereals and porridges are simply called cereal.
- ^ 1961 is the earliest year for which FAO statistics are available.
- ^ a b FAO. ProdSTAT. FAOSTAT. Retrieved on 2006-12-26.
- ^ The weight given is for paddy rice
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
- Zadoks scale
- List of edible seeds
- Home Grown Cereals Authority website. Retrieved on 2006-09-08.