Once only found in Middle Eastern restaurants or ethnic food stores, hummus has become a surging business for food companies here in the U.S. and abroad. The chickpea (garbanzo) bean spread is no longer a secret and limited only to those who were fortunate enough to have a Lebanese restaurant in the neighborhood. Hummus has now gone corporate, with brands such as Tribe and Sabra (a Strauss Group and PepsiCo partnership) enjoying popularity and impressive sales: $325 million at last count in 2010.
But the growing affinity for hummus is more than just another food trend. As global production of hummus increases and with it, the cultivation of chickpeas, this simple spread could benefit people, and the planet, in various ways. Think about better managed farms with higher yields and resilient soil, another tool in the kit to fight global hunger, a key to better nutrition and a food that can fight obesity are among the reasons why hummus can help with the transformation of both people’s diets and global agriculture.
It is hard to walk out of a Whole Foods and spend less than 20 bucks. But at a time when fast food companies are still relentlessly trying to convince us that a dollar menu or combo meal is a great deal for lunch, you can walk into a Whole Foods or other supermarket, grab an eight ounce tub of hummus and have a meal for $2 to $3. Before you even add the bread or vegetables to go with that dip, those eight ounces already offer the base for a nutrient- and caloric-rich meal. With a serving (two tablespoons) offering anywhere from 60 to 80 calories, that small tub has close to 500 calories. Then add protein, folate, B-vitamins and iron–not to mention that hummus is relatively low in fat, save for the oil.
Walk into a Costco, and you will see the Sabra brand taking up valuable shelf space. Quite often it is one of the food products the warehouse retailer offers at its demo tables. Listen to the pitches: You do not hear workers talk about how hummus is ground up chickpeas or garbanzos–that would ruin the sales pitch. Folks who are at first dubious of what looks like a tub of tile grout, are willing to try the concoction when they hear they are about to sample a “dip.” So say good-bye to the onion and spinach dips of yesterday. Compared to the processed foods available in cardboard coffins within supermarkets’ frozen food aisles, hummus is a healthful option.
And not only is this mysterious dip from the Middle East good for you, it tastes good and is affordable. Hummus is not difficult to make: just blend chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste), oil, garlic and lemon or citric acid. But finding the right balance can be tricky. Too much tahini and it becomes gritty. Add too much garlic and you cancel out the other subtle flavors. Excessive lemon juice or citric acid will also ruin the flavor.
But large companies and the kitchens that sell their private label products to chains such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s have got the formula down, and now they can scale.They have an opportunity to sell small tubs in schools or even–imagine this–in fast food restaurants. The McHummus may sound a few pita chips short of a Happy Meal, but as the appetite for hummus surges, so do opportunities in new markets. And as more consumers develop an appetite for the millennia-old spread, there is hope that more healthful foods easy on the palate and planet can have a positive impact on public health.
Hummus could have an impact on public health, too. Dense and filling, it is not hard to fill up when eating this spread. And look at the other options that surround us. Despite more healthful options and more transparent menus at chain restaurants, the obesity epidemic here in the U.S. has shown no sign of receding. Purists who grew up noshing on hummus may blanche at flavor options such as red pepper, chipotle, or Asian fusion, but watch the tubs fly into the shopping carts at Costco and who is buying it–all demographics. And that variance in flavors means that more children and teens are opening up to hummus as a snack. In fact, peruse the web and you will see a flurry of websites and mommy bloggers touting hummus as an alternative to other snacks and as a way to combat obesity. From the American Heart Association touting the spread to more and more school districts, hummus is catching on. Not all nutritionists are thrilled, especially if hummus contains canola or soybean oil, the use of which critics say is more about reducing costs than offering nutrition. In sum, however, you could do much worse than a bowl of mashed chickpeas.
Finally, as is the case with other legumes, hummus, as in chickpeas, benefit farmers and the planet. The cultivation of these hardy beans is a solid crop to add to a farmer’s rotation as they help replenish the soil with valuable nitrogen. Watch for more partnerships such as the one between PepsiCo, USAid, the UN’s World Food Program and the Government of Ethiopia, which aims to launch the country as a leading exporter of chickpeas.
The EthioPEA Alliance also looks to provide more nutritious food domestically, as well, including the manufacturing of ready-to-use supplementary food that can feed a large population in a hurry. Developing countries are ramping up production, too. Currently, Washington state leads the U.S. in chickpea cultivation and acreage is on the upswing. Chickpeas may not yet replace peanuts as the densely nutritious ingredient of choice, but watch for the little beige bean to improve nutrition in some nations while combatting poverty and hunger elsewhere.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.
Image credit: Leon Kaye, GreenGoPost.com