Top Foods Native to the Americas

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A Brief History

On July 7, 1550, chocolate is thought to have been introduced to Europe from the Americas.  In the following article, the author will list the foods native to either the North or South American continents that had the most significance on a culinary scale when finally exported to Europe, Asia and Africa. These will be in no particular order of ranking but merely alphabetical. Honorable mentions go to the grains/seeds: Quinoa and Amaranth. This is because these two foods are gaining in popularity due to growing health-food trends that involve going gluten-free and vegan, however, they have not yet gone mainstream.  Tobacco is not included as this is not a food (though some people disgustingly like to chew it…).

Digging Deeper

1. Avocados

Native to Mexico and Central America, this fruit, or rather large berry commonly made into guacamole is one of the most nutrient-dense foods. It offers a respectable amount of vitamin E, has nearly twice as much potassium as a banana and with its 18 amino acids, meets much of a person’s daily protein requirement. On an interesting side note, avocados were originally called alligator pears due to their color, shape and rough skin.

2. Beans

Although broad beans, also known as fava beans, grew in Afghanistan and the Himalayan foothills, most varieties of beans eaten today (kidney, black, pinto, navy, etc.) have their origins in the Americas, with Christopher Columbus being the first European to see them being grown in fields. Dried they can be stored in pantries for years and then soaked prior to cooking. This characteristic makes them a reliable, easily transportable and non-perishable source of nutrition.

3. Chocolate

With some of the greatest manufacturers of chocolate being situated in Europe (Belgium – Godiva; Germany – Ritter Sport; Switzerland – Lindt; and the UK – Cadbury), and with 2/3 of the world’s cocoa beans now being grown in West Africa, who would have thought that chocolate, prepared mainly as a drink for most of its history, was only first encountered by a non-American in 1502 when Christopher Columbus seized a native canoe carrying cocoa beans while he on his fourth voyage to the Americas? It would be, however, another half century before it was formally introduced to Europe.

4. Corn

Commonly called maize, for centuries following its introduction to Europe, corn was primarily used as livestock feed. It was only toward the end of the 20th century, that corn increasingly became seen by Europeans as fit for human consumption as well. Unfortunately today, most corn grown in the United States has been genetically modified. Many European countries have restrictions against the import and production of GMO crops.

5. Cranberries

Originally called “bearberries” by the earliest settlers because bears ate them, later European settlers called them “craneberries” because they felt the flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. One of the healthiest berries, they are primarily used to help promote urinary health in women by possibly helping prevent urinary tract infections by supposedly adhering to and flushing out bacteria.

6. Papayas

Native to the Tropics of the Americas, papaya plants come in three sexes – male, female and hermaphrodite. Today most commercial papayas come from hermaphroditic plants. Gaining in popularity, papayas are currently the third most popular tropical fruit following mangos and pineapples. Papayas have become an important agricultural export for developing countries, with the current largest producer being India.

7. Peanuts 

Technically not nuts, peanuts are in fact legumes or rather beans. Until the early 20th century, peanuts were mainly grown in gardens and primarily used as livestock feed. Then, a program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged the large-scale production and human consumption of peanuts. Introduced to China by Portuguese traders in the 17th century, it was incorporated into many Chinese dishes, and today China is the largest producer of peanuts.

8. Peppers

Peppers, including the bell, chili, cayenne and jalapeño varieties, are also an American contribution to the international culinary scene and probably together with potatoes and tomatoes had the greatest overall impact when seen on a world-wide scale. Named after black pepper because of their similar taste to the spice, whether stuffed or used for seasoning, these capsicums have reached every corner of the planet and are synonymous with many types of cuisines, particularly the Mexican, Spanish, Thai and Hungarian ones. In fact stuffed peppers of all sorts can be found in just about everywhere and are extremely popular in the Arabic, Slavic and Mediterranean worlds.

9. Pineapples

The word “pineapple” was the original English word for pine cones. When English-speaking explorers first discovered the tropical fruit in the Americas, they called them pineapples because of their resemblance to what we now know as pine cones. It was only in the 17th century that pine cones got their modern name and pineapples were able to keep theirs. Some reminders of the actual linguistic origin still remain, with the Puerto Rican drink “Piña colada” literally translating into “strained pine cone”.

10. Potatoes

Indigenous to the Andes, it was the Spanish who brought potatoes to Europe. Legend has it that potatoes were introduced to Ireland when they washed up onshore after the decimation of the Spanish Armada. There, they eventually became such a staple, that a fungal infestation of the potato crop led to the deaths of 1 million people by starvation during the Irish Potato Famine from 1845-1849, with another 1 1/2 million Irish emigrating to the USA. Today potatoes are the fourth largest food crop, following maize/corn, wheat and rice.

11. Squash

Squash, pumpkins, zucchini and other gourds are the New World relatives of melons and cucumbers. Around 10,000 B.C. people in modern day Central-America began farming squash, making it one of the oldest plants to be cultivated. Of all the varieties, it is zucchini that has become the most readily accepted type of squash by international chefs, particularly those in France, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, especially since it is in these areas that they grow particularly well. In fact, zucchini as it is known today was actually developed in Italy, many generations after squash had been introduced.

12. Sunflowers

Wild sunflowers were native to North and Central America. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro observed how sunflowers were worshipped by the Incas as an image of their god. The first sunflower seeds were brought to Europe by the Spanish in 1552. Originally used for decorative purposes, now sunflowers are mostly grown for their seeds from which oil is pressed. It was in Russia and not in the Americas that sunflowers and the production of sunflower oil first became commercialized, with most credit being given to Peter the Great. The main reason for this was the Russian Orthodox Church forbade the use of most oils during Lent; sunflower oil was not one of them.

13. Sweet Potatoes

Although named sweet potato, they actually have no relation at all to conventional potatoes, and unlike regular potatoes that took a while to catch on in Europe, sweet potatoes were readily accepted as a rare and expensive delicacy. Since they are hardy and can easily adapt to new soils and environments, sweet potatoes are now grown in more developing countries than any other root crop, and sweet potato plants produce more pounds of food per acre than any other cultivated crop, including potato plants.

14. Tomatoes

Where would Italian cuisine be without the tomato? How would we eat pizza and spaghetti? Marco Polo may have brought pasta from China, but the sauce came from America. Oddly enough it took the Italians approx. 150 years after the tomato’s introduction in the 1540s before they dared eat and cook it. Before then they used tomatoes mainly as tabletop ornaments. Nowadays, though technically a berry, a subset of fruit, tomatoes are considered vegetables when used for culinary purposes. In 2009, Ohio passed a law making the tomato the state’s official fruit (Ohioans like red things).

15. Turkeys

The author of this article had always asked herself, “How did Turkeys get their name?”, and spent many sleepless nights pondering this question. Well, not really, but in researching this article she finally found the answer and is so excited to share it with all of her readers so that they too can rest easy from no on. It does have something to do with the country. The first Europeans who encountered turkeys misidentified them as guineafowl, also known as Turkey fowl because they were imported to Central Europe from Africa through Turkey, and there we have it. It was the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés who first brought turkeys to Europe. Later it was the Europeans who brought their domesticated turkeys back to America when they settled the North Amerian continent. Today most domesticated American turkeys are descended from turkeys who lived in Europe.

16. Vanilla

Another food that experienced a type of “re-introduction” to America was the vanilla bean. Taken from the Aztecs by the Spanish after they were defeated, vanilla, though quite expensive, spread through Europe as a flavoring spice. It was Thomas Jefferson, who, while serving as ambassador to France, brought vanilla beans to the United States. Today, Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, is the largest producer of vanilla. And Bourbon vanilla has nothing to do with the liquor, but rather the old name of Madagascar which was the Bourbon Islands.

Question for students (and subscribers): If you know of any other foods that you believe deserve to be on the list, please add them in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Divina, Fernando.  Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions.  Ten Speed Press, 2010.

You can also watch a video version of this list below:


About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.