What's behind America's love-hate relationship with hummus?

A move away from the traditional-tasting Middle Eastern dip means brands in US are unable to appeal to foodies

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Earlier this year, Sabra, one of the first and biggest hummus brands in the US, posted a video on Facebook about its “everything-bagel-seasoned hummus”.

The comments rolled in, with followers noting how they enjoy their “American hummus” with everything from French breads to Hawaiian dinner rolls.

Hummus, in America, is arguably different from what Middle Easterners are used to eating and enjoying. For one thing, many varieties of this dish, traditionally made of chickpea, are sweet. Walk into any big-box grocery store and you’ll be treated to choco-mint hummus, cake batter hummus, dark chocolate hummus, sea salt-caramel hummus — and even strawberry and pina colada hummus.

The authenticity of “dessert hummus” aside, Americans “spent close to $800 million on hummus from retail stores in 2018 alone”, Tim McGreevy, chief executive of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, told NPR.

However, in February, grocery delivery and pick-up service Instacart released a survey before the Super Bowl, the annual championship game of America's National Football League where it’s tradition to enjoy football and 70-plus commercials over snacks with friends. Think chicken wings, pizza, chilli, tortilla chips, potato chips, pretzels and rinds. Dips are par for the course, too.

Whichever dish makes it to the Super Bowl snack table is largely considered America’s favourite nibble of the moment. This year, the snack Americans could not resist, according to the survey, was tortilla chips with salsa, queso or guacamole.

Hummus, however, was placed on top of the list of worst snacks. This can be attributed to a number of reasons.

New is not always nice

Hummus has been around for only 36 years in the US, as Sabra launched it in 1986. This is one reason why, according to a report published by the Institute of Food Technologists, a quarter of the US population has no idea what hummus is.

To change this, Sabra used food lorries to distribute tiny packs of hummus to Americans in different cities. The company made a major push to take hummus mainstream in 2020, when it spent $5.6m to air its first Super Bowl commercial, which featured 19 celebrities.

However, 2020 was the first and only time Sabra aired a hummus commercial during the Super Bowl. In 2021 and 2022, there were none — even though the television major event attracted 96.4 million and 101 million viewers respectively.

“Hummus was not widely known in the US years ago, and so many people simply don’t know what it is,” commented Maura Rudd, a food fan, on Quora. “The name [hummus] kind of makes you think of hummus, which is a type of garden soil [formed due to decomposition of plant and animal matter].”

Ronen Zohar, former chief executive of Sabra, even admitted “it’s tough to pronounce” for many.

But its name and pronunciation are not the only obstacles for hummus in America. It’s also the taste.

Taste test

Sadia Khan, a marketing manager at Speciality Care Clinics in Dallas who has lived extensively in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, says she has not found a single place in the US where hummus tastes the same as in the UAE. Not even in Middle Eastern restaurants.

“The hummus here [in the US] is dry and thick. And there [in the UAE], it is creamy and rich,” she says.

Mitra Sharif, owner of Oxus 7, a Turkish restaurant in Ashburn, Virginia (the richest county of the US in terms of median household income), explains the reason behind this. “Most places, including brands and restaurants, use canned chickpeas, which affects the taste of hummus.”

To make the product more palpable to the American palate, hummus brands have introduced flavours such as black bean, dill pickle, buffalo, yellow lentil, pumpkin pie, white bean, edamame, chipotle, basil pesto and avocado, plus the aforementioned caramel, strawberry and chocolate dessert varieties.

Purists can argue not one of these is “real” hummus.

Flavours aside, brands are also experimenting with products created using hummus as an oft-contentious base.

Think hummus shake by Hummus & Pita Co. This is made out of chickpeas, tahini, frozen banana, dates and almond milk, and it is available in flavours such as chocolate, strawberry, pistachio and butter pecan.

It’s hard to tell what’s next for hummus in America, but one thing’s for certain: brands and enthusiasts seem determined to make Americans love hummus. Whether or not it will work, is up for debate.

Watch the video below to learn how to make hummus the traditional way.

Updated: May 22, 2022, 11:34 AM
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