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Original photo by LumiNola/ iStock
Which Country Produces the Most of Your Favorite Foods?
Read Time: 8m
Article image
Original photo by LumiNola/ iStock

Not all countries are agriculturally equal, and a handful of places — China, the U.S., India, and Brazil — dominate global food production and exports. Yet smaller players also contribute to stocking the shelves with our favorite foods, thanks to native plant species, environmental factors, and infrastructure investments. Take, for instance, Canada’s abundance of lentils or Peru’s booming quinoa industry. Here are 13 foods and their top-producing countries. Do you know where your favorite snack comes from?

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Turkey: Hazelnuts

Close-up of hazelnuts brown wooden shell in a bag.
Credit: Olenaduygu/ Shutterstock

Turkey is the world's leading hazelnut producer, by a large margin. The transcontinental country, which straddles Asia and Europe, accounts for about 72.9% of the total global supply. By comparison, Italy, the second-highest hazelnut-producing country in the world, yields just 20% of the world’s supply each year. About 60% of Turkey’s crop comes from the Eastern Black Sea region; the persistent rainfall, moderate temperatures, and hospitable soil on the steep hills create the perfect growing conditions for the nut. It’s likely you’ve sampled Turkey’s supply and not even realized: Companies like Nestlé, Ferrero, and Godiva primarily source hazelnuts for their candy bars, Nutella spread, and decadent chocolates from the region.

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Indonesia: Coconuts

Coconuts have created a heated agricultural competition between Indonesia and the Philippines over the past several years. In 2019, Indonesia edged out the Philippines as the top producer in the world, growing around 19 million tons versus the Philippines’ 14 million tons. (The Philippines, however, remains the world’s top producer of coconut oil.) The coconut is a resilient fruit, and while the palm tree it grows on doesn’t require a specific soil, a high amount of rainfall is needed to properly sustain growth. The trees thrive in humid coastal areas; India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Thailand also rank among the world’s major coconut producers. The coconut is extremely versatile; everything from the tree’s leaves and wood to the fruit’s water, meat, and shell can be used, giving the palm tree its nickname, the “Tree of Life.”

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Madagascar: Vanilla

Bottles with aromatic extract and dry vanilla beans on a wooden board.
Credit: Olenaduygu/ Shutterstock

If you love the smell and taste of vanilla, you can thank Madagascar. Though it originated in Mexico, 80% of the enduringly popular spice is now grown in the East African country. Anyone who has ever sought natural vanilla extract or beans knows that the prices are not always consumer-friendly, but it’s for good reason: Vanilla isn’t an easy crop to grow. Vines take anywhere from two to four years to mature, pollination is done artificially by hand (flowers open only one day a year, and the plant’s natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, is found only in Mexico), and the beans take nine months after pollination to be ripe for picking. It then takes many more months of preparing and drying the vanilla beans in the sun for their aromatic appeal to be just right, meaning the process from pollination to shipment takes about one year.

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Costa Rica: Pineapples

Although pineapples are native to South America, Costa Rica leads the world in pineapple production and exports. The small Central American country leans heavily on the crops, which generate an estimated $1 billion USD a year for their economy. While the crops are bountiful for the country (as well as for Brazil and the Philippines), they require a significant amount of time and effort to produce fruit — one plant typically produces only one or two pineapples every 18 to 24 months. In an effort to speed up the growth, some producers have used artificial fertilizers, but not without criticisms and concerns over the toxicity to the famously environmentally forward country. In response, the Costa Rican pineapple industry is working toward implementing regulations to ensure more sustainable practices.

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Mexico: Avocados

Cut avocados on an old wooden table.
Credit: Krasula/ Shutterstock

Avocados have become so ubiquitous in food culture that their consumption was once cited as a reason for Millennials not being able to buy homes. But before they became a so-called luxury grocery item for hip young people, avocados were a long-running staple of the Mexican diet, and to this day, Mexico is the leading avocado producer and exporter in the world. Avocados weren’t always so popular outside of their native land, though — it wasn’t until a PR campaign and Super Bowl commercial in the early 1990s that guacamole became a game-day staple. Today, a staggering 87% of the U.S. supply comes from Mexico, where the avocado industry provides 40,000 jobs and 70,000 seasonal jobs during harvest.

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Peru: Quinoa

In the mid-to-late 2000s, quinoa enjoyed a huge popularity surge in Europe and the U.S., where it was touted for its health benefits. Since 2015, Peru — the native region for the Andean plant — has emerged as the largest quinoa producer and exporter in the world. The “superfood” is a grain crop, the edible seeds of which are high in protein, amino acids, fiber, iron, and antioxidants. The ancient grain is so revered that it even received a special honor from the United Nations General Assembly, who named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. The popularity and production boom has been financially beneficial to Peruvian farmers, who previously grew quinoa primarily for their own family’s use.

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Canada: Lentils

Close-up of a spoon full of lentils.
Credit: SMarina/ Shutterstock

When you think of Canada, wheat, canola, or maple syrup might be some of the top agricultural exports that come to mind. (And rightfully so — our neighbors to the north produce 85% of the syrup in the world.) But it might be more surprising to learn that Canada is the world’s top lentil producer as well. The western prairie province of Saskatchewan is responsible for 65% of the world’s lentils. Saskatchewan also supplies the majority of its own country’s lentil supply — 95% — but India, even with steep import duties, remains the top international importer of Canadian lentils. Started in the 1970s, Canada’s lentil industry is relatively young; there are now more than 5,000 lentil farmers in the country.

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Nigeria: Yams

Yams have been cultivated in Africa for more than 11,000 years, and the majority of the world’s supply (over 60%) comes from the country of Nigeria. Yams are not only a primary agricultural commodity and staple food for the country, but also have high cultural capital. In Nigeria, where it is often said that “yam is food and food is yam,” traditional dancing, drumming, and costumes accompany the harvest months of August and September; yams are also present at marriages and have a role in fertility ceremonies. Several other African countries celebrate the starchy root vegetable: Nigeria — together with Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Central Africa, Cameroon, and Togo — produce over 94% of the world's yams.

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Brazil: Oranges

A woman picking oranges from an orange tree in an orchard.
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You may think that Florida, “The Sunshine State,” could be a contender for one of the “orangest” places in the world. And at one time, it was the world’s top producer. But Brazil actually takes the title now, growing 30% of the world’s supply, with 94% of that production concentrated in Sao Paulo. The shift started after the 1960s, when a series of frosts devastated Florida crops. The U.S. citrus industry then took repeated hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s as Florida’s growing conditions proved too volatile, paving the way for Brazil to take the top spot in the late 1970s. The orange industry in Brazil has been a boon to the economy, generating more than 200,000 jobs in 300-plus cities, and bringing in export revenue of up to $2.5 billion USD annually.

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Germany: Cheese

Of all the cheese-loving countries in the European Union, France and Switzerland are no match for Germany’s 2.2 million tons produced in 2019. Most of the product stays within the EU; outside the European market, the U.S. was the top cheese importer, accounting for 17% of the exports outside the EU. Japan, Switzerland, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia are the other top importers. So, what kind of cheese is Germany making the most of? Fresh cheeses are incredibly popular, from schichtkäse to mozzarella, but the semi-hard, all-time favorite gouda is the most-produced cheese in Germany.

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Vietnam: Pepper

Black peppercorns being put into a mortar and pestle.
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Black peppercorns are one of the most essential spices for any household pantry, and Vietnam is to thank for nearly half of the world’s output. The black pepper fruit, which originated in India, thrives in tropical climates. It grows on a woody vine, and resembles a small berry before it’s picked and dried into its familiar hardened, shriveled shell. Pepper farms, which are easy to spot across the landscape with their tall, leafy green columns, have started to replace the country’s aging coffee farms over the past decade. (Vietnam is, however, still a leading coffee producer.) The country’s pepper cultivation area tripled between 2013 and 2018, and Vietnam is now looking ahead to ensure that as the industry grows, it does so sustainably.

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Italy: Artichokes

Italy’s contributions to the agricultural industry on a global scale are now modest, but it is the world’s top producer of this classic (if not divisive) pizza topping. Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean region and are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. The layered plant is actually a thistle in the sunflower family; the pointed, edible portion you’re likely familiar with is made up of flower buds before they bloom. (Once bloomed, the violet-blue flower can measure up to seven inches in diameter and becomes coarse and inedible.) Despite Italy’s dominance as an artichoke grower, Spain is actually the world’s leading exporter of the vegetable.

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India: Mangoes

Close-up of fresh raw mangoes on a tree.
Credit: Khonte Abejuela/ iStock

It’s probably not a huge surprise that India takes the top spot on the list of the world’s biggest mango producers — the tropical fruit is native to the region and accounts for 50% of the world supply. But what you might not know is that mangoes from India only became an export available to the U.S. in the late aughts, when President George W. Bush reportedly allowed the import in exchange for India allowing Harley-Davidson motorcycles into the South Asian country. Still, India is not a top mango provider to the U.S., which instead imports most of its product from Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Of the approximately 1,500 varieties of mangoes grown in India, the most popular — home and abroad — is the Alphonso, which is also known as the “King of Mangoes.