Hummus is having a heyday with American consumers, and that could be as good for the soil as it is for our health.
Formerly relegated to the snack aisle in U.S. grocery stores, the chickpea-based dip has long starred as the smooth centerpiece of Middle Eastern meals and, increasingly, plant-based diets. Occasionally, it even doubles as dessert. Last year, Americans spent four times as much money on grocery store hummus as they did a decade before, according to the latest consumer surveys, and a growing number of snacks and fast-casual concepts also feature the fiber- and protein-rich chickpea as their pièce de résistance. Part of a subcategory of legumes called pulses, chickpeas — along with lentils, dry peas and several varieties of beans — have been a critical crop and foodstuff for centuries in Middle Eastern and Asian countries. The crops are so promising that the United Nations deemed 2016 the Year of Pulses to expand interest in these ancient foods and their potential to help solve dueling modern-day conundrums: hunger and soil depreciation.
Some American farmers were already well on their way to embracing pulses, seeing the role they could play in improving soil health and setting the stage for better harvests of cash crops like wheat. Last year, U.S. farmers planted more chickpeas than ever to satisfy growing demand for plant-based protein alternatives — which, in turn, could help restore soils depleted by decades of intensive farming.
Unlike corn or wheat, these pulses fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving extra stores of the nutrient in the soil for future crops to consume. For this reason, pulses can play a vital role in crop rotations, especially those that don't rely on chemical fertilizers. What's more, if managed well, these crops can be part of a farming system that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and helps mitigate climate change.
"I see this diversification and these legumes as a way to get away from the use of synthetic nitrogen," says Casey Bailey, a farmer in Fort Benton, Mont., who grows organic chickpeas as the linchpin of a rotational planting program. "They're a tricky crop to grow, but I'm a huge proponent of trying to figure out how to do it."
He sells about 2,000 pounds of chickpeas each month to Little Sesame, a fast-casual concept serving hummus bowls topped with seasonal vegetables at a pair of locations in the District of Columbia. Chef-owners Nick Wiseman and Israeli-born Ronen Tenne soak the dried chickpeas for hours before cooking and blending them (with tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice) into daily batches to satiate the city's lunch and after-work crowds — often without adding meat.
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"We don't say it much, but 80% of the menu is always vegan," Wiseman says. "It's awesome to see people who would probably eat meat every day come in here and be satisfied without it."
For Wiseman, the cherry on top of opening a second location this year is getting to buy more kabuli chickpeas from Bailey, whom he'll visit this summer during a road trip in Little Sesame's 1978 Volkswagen van. Creating markets for such legumes — particularly those grown without chemicals such as desiccants used to dry chickpeas in the fields — is a growing interest for Wiseman.
"These (chickpeas) are helping restore the grasslands of the West, which are this huge carbon sink," Wiseman says over a bowl of hummus topped with snap peas and Aleppo chili oil at his Chinatown location. "They're a very powerful plant."
Bailey planted his first few hundred acres of chickpeas a dozen years ago, after a retailer looking to sell more of the healthful legumes reached out to him on LinkedIn, making him a pioneer in Montana's grain-heavy Golden Triangle region. But word was spreading that the chickpea could pull in more money per pound than other legumes, while reducing the need for chemical inputs compared with crops like wheat.
When Tim McGreevy started working in 1994 as the CEO of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council and the American Pulse Association — a trade group that trumpets the power of chickpeas, lentils, dry peas and beans — the country was harvesting about 30,000 acres of chickpeas annually, primarily in the hilly Palouse agricultural region of Washington, Idaho and Oregon. By last year, that number had swelled to 859,000 acres.
"That's a pretty big difference in 25 years," says McGreevy, who also grows chickpeas on a small farm in Eastern Washington.
Last year in particular, Bailey says, "it seemed like the entire state of Montana was chickpeas."
While about half of the country's chickpea harvest is still shipped overseas, a growing number of chickpeas are going to domestic markets as demand increases. Trade disputes also are making international markets less reliable. In 2019, U.S. farmers reduced for the first time in years the number of acres they planned to plant in chickpeas, down to 519,000 acres. Volatile trade riffs with countries such as India in 2018 left much of that year's harvest sitting in silos, where an oversupply has continued to depress chickpea prices this year.
"The saving grace — and why I'm still optimistic — is the domestic market continues to grow for all pulse crops," McGreevy says. He thinks the lower price could also spur even more innovation of chickpea-based foods. "Chickpeas have, in particular, shown significant growth in sales over the past decade."
Americans spent nearly $800 million on hummus from retail stores in 2018, McGreevy says. That's compared to just under $200 million in hummus sales a decade before and only $5 million in the mid-1990s, placing the popular dip among food retail's fastest-growing sectors.
Sabra, a joint venture between Strauss Group and PepsiCo., has led hummus' parade into U.S. markets over the past decade and is still one of the sector's largest players. A Sabra production plant in Chesterfield County, Va., where the company also has encouraged more farmers to grow chickpeas, was expanded in 2014 to produce more than 8,000 tons of hummus a month in anticipation of market growth. The chickpea invasion has gone beyond the dip aisle, too, with crunchy roasted versions from companies like Hippeas and The Good Bean competing with potato chips as a healthful alternative. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest Americans eat 1 ½ cups of cooked pulses per week, McGreevy notes. High in protein, dietary fiber and essential amino acids, pulses can play an even larger role in diets focused on reducing meat consumption. Hummus already looms large on American snack tables, replacing ranch dressing as a healthier, cut-vegetable accompaniment. And, now, it's staging a takeover of the main meal, too. Hummus-based bowls are the centerpiece of chains like New York City's The Hummus & Pita Co., and a staple ingredient at the ballooning number of fast-casual Mediterranean concepts such as Cava and Roti. Chickpeas are cropping up on menus in Asian noodle dishes, French fries, soft-serve "ice cream" and dessert-like frostings.
But perhaps the easiest way to wade into the chickpea fray is to find a really good bowl of hummus — which doubles as the Arabic word for chickpea — and shovel it in.
Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist living just outside Washington. You can find more of her work here. Follow her on Twitter at @WhitneyPipkin. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.