Does chickpea-free hummus still count as hummus?

That which we call hummus, by any other name would taste as beany.
That which we call hummus, by any other name would taste as beany.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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My mother likes healthy snacks. She stocks her refrigerator with two and sometimes three different types of hummus—varieties like “spicy yellow lentil hummus” and “zesty Sriracha carrot hummus.” Those are products, it turns out, that most Americans don’t consider hummus at all when only given a list of ingredients, according to a survey commissioned by Quartz and SurveyMonkey.

It’s chickpeas—also known as garbanzo beans—that are supposed to be the hummus ingredient sine qua non.

But a new player, Tryst Gourmet, is trying to expand that definition, tiptoe around regulatory limits, and cash in on the rapidly-growing category. The top 5 selling brands of hummus have nearly quintupled their business to $700 million in 2013, according to data from Euromonitor.

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The research firm says this occurred because hummus ”traverses the health, gourmet and ethnic trends which are driving the US food industry” along with brands’ ability to “innovate on flavors to keep up with the ever-shifting taste preferences of consumers.”

But how can Tryst—under the slogan ”Eat Well Embrace Life”—get away with slapping the hummus label on anything it pleases? It’s simple: The US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term.

The FDA does regulate some 300 food designations, from cheddar to spaghetti, and it is being lobbied to add hummus to the list. Dipmaker Sabra, a joint venture of PepsiCo and Israel’s Strauss Group, wrote a petition to the FDA to add hummus to the list in February 2014.

Sabra notes in their petition that Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and the EU, all have regulations, official definitions or laws indicating that hummus is made of chickpeas.

But that hasn’t stopped Tryst. On November 12, the company announced two new no-chickpea “hummus” varieties. Announcing the new dips, Tryst co-founder Bob Ferraro called his company a “hummus innovator” and said the new products were “ground-breaking hummus combinations.”

Ferraro has spent almost 20 years selling hummus, first for Tribe then for Sabra, and told Quartz he isn’t trying to dupe consumers, but to expand the category with new and exciting options.

“All that legal stuff doesn’t bother us” Ferraro said. “Consumers have fallen in love with the product.”

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Quartz’s survey results indicate that hummus is not a term most Americans associate with black bean dips, blended edamame, or lentils. However, all of the Eat Well Embrace Life products contain tahini—the fourth most identified mandatory hummus ingredient in the survey.

At least half of respondents considered dips containing chickpeas in its ingredients list as hummus. Dips that did not contain chickpeas in its ingredients were considered hummus by no more than 20% of respondents.

Given a list of individual ingredients used in dips marketed as hummus, 91% of Americans who have bought hummus from a store identified chickpeas as an ingredient used in making hummus, and 82% indicated that hummus must include chickpeas.

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The survey was conducted October 24-25 and were collected from a representative sample of 635 Americans using SurveyMonkey Audience.

The FDA declined to comment on the Quartz survey or any pending hummus policy changes.