Hummus is conquering America

Long a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, hummus is earning a growing following among Americans seeking more-healthful snacks. The chickpea dip is low in fat and high in protein. Sales of “refrigerated flavoured spreads” — a segment dominated by hummus — totaled $530 million at US food retailers last year, up 11% from a year earlier and a 25% jump over 2010, according to market-research firm Information Resources.

And, prodded by the largest US hummus maker, farmers in the heart of US tobacco country are trying to grow chickpeas, an improbable move that reflects booming demand for hummus, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Sabra Dipping Co, a joint venture of PepsiCo and Israel’s Strauss Group, wants to cultivate a commercial crop in Virginia to reduce its dependence on the legume’s main US growing region — the Pacific Northwest — and to identify new chickpea varieties for its dips and spreads.

For Sabra, which makes hummus at a plant near Richmond, Va, a secondary source of supplies could help protect the company if a chickpea shortage occurred because of crop failures in Washington or Idaho. Sourcing chickpeas locally also would lower its shipping costs. But the Virginia effort carries risk, because experts say the state’s high summer humidity could prove a significant obstacle to its viability.

“We need to establish the supply chain to meet our growing demand,” says Sabra’s chief technology officer, Tulin Tuzel. “We want to reduce the risk of bad weather or concentration in one region. If possible, we also want to expand the growing seasons.”

The growth has caught the attention of big food companies like PepsiCo, which bought a 50% stake in Sabra in 2008, and Kraft Foods which owns Athenos, another big hummus brand. Sabra has announced an $86-million expansion of its hummus plant near Richmond to help meet demand.

Sabra doesn’t disclose financial data, but IRI data show its hummus sales were about $315-million last year, up about 18%.

Sabra, based in White Plains, NY, has helped introduce more Americans to hummus through huge sampling events in major cities in which it has handed out 10,000 2-ounce packages a day. Sabra began its first national television advertising campaign earlier this year.

“Most of the consumers out there still don’t know what hummus is,” said Adam Carr, chief executive of Tribe Mediterranean Foods, a Sabra rival. “We think that there are going to be lots of new users coming to the category.”

Growing demand for hummus has pushed up prices for chickpeas, spurring farmers to increase production. The average price that farmers received for chickpeas was 35 cents a pound last year, a 10-cent increase over the mid-2000s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Though chickpeas are a tiny crop compared with corn or wheat, last year’s U.S. harvest totaled a record 332 million pounds, up 51% from the previous year, according to the USDA. The value of the U.S. chickpea crop hit a record $115.5 million last year, USDA data show.

U.S. farmers are expected to plant a record 214,300 acres of chickpeas this year, up 3% from last year and a fivefold increase over a decade ago, the USDA said. Demand for the U.S. crop from Spain, Turkey and Pakistan also has led farmers to plant more.

Source: Wall Street Journal