Americans are crazy for hummus.
National hummus sales now top $725 million annually, and it's estimated that 25 percent of U.S. households now stock hummus in the fridge. It wasn't always like this. Just two decades ago, annual U.S. hummus sales barely surpassed $5 million.
Hummus's dramatic rise in America can be attributed to two big reasons—it's convenient and it's healthy. At least we think it's healthy, right? Well, it certainly seems a whole lot healthier than alternative dips like sour cream, blue cheese or french onion.
But could hummus be what's secretly expanding your waistline and adding boatloads of unexpected calories to your diet? Here's what you need to know about the nutrition of this classic middle eastern dish.
First things first—there's more than just chickpeas in hummus. Most hummus is made with a recipe that includes chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. However, chickpeas are the quintessential ingredient. In fact, the word "hummus" comes from the Arabic word meaning chickpeas.
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Chickpeas themselves are quite healthy. A cup of boiled chickpeas contains 269 calories, 4 grams of fat, less than a gram of saturated fat, 11 mg of sodium, 12 grams of fiber (48 percent of the recommended daily value), 15 grams of protein and a hefty amount of potassium, iron, magnesium, folate, manganese and vitamin B-6.
While chickpeas are moderately high in calories, their nutrient-packed nature more than makes up for it in most cases. Chickpeas are categorized as "pulses," which also include beans, lentils and dry peas. A 2016 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating one serving of pulses a day aids in appetite control and can contribute to moderate weight loss.
But you'll notice that the nutrition in a cup of hummus is quite different from a cup of boiled chickpeas (a cup of hummus would be a lot to consume in one sitting, but we'll talk about the importance of serving size later).
Per the USDA, this is what a cup of average commercial hummus contains:
- 409 calories
- 24 grams of fat
- 3.5 grams of saturated fat
- 932 mg of sodium
- 15 grams fiber
- 19 grams protein
Compare those to the numbers for a cup of chickpeas:
- 729 calories
- 12 grams of fat
- 1 gram of saturated fat
- 48 mg of sodium
- 35 grams of fiber
- 39 grams of protein
The cup of chickpeas is higher in calories than the hummus, but it's also way lower in fat, saturated fat and sodium and much higher in fiber and protein.
What ingredients in hummus cause these significant changes?
In addition to cooked chickpeas, Sabra Classic Hummus (one of the most popular commercial brands) contains tahini, soybean oil, water, garlic, salt, citric acid and potassium sorbate. We won't worry about those last two ingredients for now—citric acid is a common additive to replace lemon juice, and potassium sorbate is a common additive to preserve freshness. Water is water, so nothing to break down nutritionally there. Garlic and salt are low-calorie, fat-free seasonings, so they're not jacking up the calorie and fat counts (though the salt could obviously be a part of the big variance in sodium content). So that leaves two main culprits—tahini and soybean oil.
Tahini is made from ground up hulled sesame seeds. At 89 calories and 8 grams of fat per tablespoon, it's a calorically-dense food. Tahini drives up the fat and calorie content of hummus, but most of its fat content (roughly 7 of the 8 grams) is of the unsaturated variety. Of those 7 grams of unsaturated fat, about half are monounsaturated fat and half are polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats help to reduce blood pressure and protect against heart disease. They can also help the body better absorb vitamins and more efficiently use protein. Polyunsaturated fats can reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease and strokes.
Soybean oil is one of the most widely consumed cooking oils. By their nature, oils are high in fat and calories, and soybean oil is no different. A tablespoon contains 120 calories, 14 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat. There's not much else in there, as soybean oil is devoid of fiber, sodium, protein and most vitamins. Like tahini, the fat in soybean oil is largely of the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties.
So, it's tahini and the oil that add additional calories and fat to the chickpea base of hummus. But do they jack up the numbers so much that they render hummus an unhealthy food?
Some brands use more of those ingredients than others, but generally speaking, hummus is a healthy food when eaten in moderation. The moderation part is crucial, because it allows you to enjoy the benefits of hummus (high in fiber, antioxidants, protein, etc.) without overdoing it on calories and fat. I know what you're thinking—didn't we just establish that most of the fat in hummus is of the "healthy" variety? We did, but here's the deal—the best way to reap the benefits of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is to use them to replace saturated fats in your diet. They're still fats, so eating too much of them can lead to weight gain and the health risks associated with being overweight. By using them in moderation and to replace saturated fat-heavy foods as opposed to in addition to saturated fat-heavy foods, you're making sure you get the benefits of healthy fats without overindulging.
A serving of hummus is only about 2 tablespoons, making it a food most people chronically overeat. But if you can limit yourself to roughly the serving size, hummus is quite healthy. Not only is it high in fiber and protein, it's also packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A 2016 review published in the journal Nutrients concluded that hummus can be an integral part of a healthy diet:
"Substitution of common dips and spreads with hummus helps to increase diet quality. Finally, emerging evidence suggests that chickpea and hummus consumption has benefits beyond providing basic nutrition. Consuming chickpeas and/or hummus may help prevent or offset the development and progression of several chronic diseases (CVD, type-2 diabetes, etc.) and promote healthier functional outcomes (e.g., weight management). Consuming chickpeas and/or hummus in moderation may have additional benefits beyond improving nutrient profiles of meals (e.g., delaying gastric emptying and slowing carbohydrate absorption); however, more clinical research is needed across various subpopulations."
Of course, preparation is important. The purest forms of hummus contain nothing but chickpeas, tahini, oil (typically olive oil), lemon juice and garlic (and sometimes salt). The more a hummus's ingredient list strays from this basic formula, the worse its nutrition will usually be. You can always check out the nutrition facts label to confirm this, but it's generally a good approach. Simple is better.
It's also quite easy to make your own hummus, which gives you total control of what goes in your dip. For the health-conscious person, this is always an advantage. A plethora of highly-rated hummus recipes are available online. This one from AllRecipes.com is a good starting point.
Of course, what you're dipping in your hummus is also extremely important. Veggies like carrots, broccoli, celery and peppers are fantastic choices that boost the overall nutritional profile of your snack. If you don't want to use veggies, pita bread is usually a healthier choice than tortilla chips or crackers.
Photo Credit: robynmac/iStock/ Thinkstock, Elenathewise/iStock/ Thinkstock, GreenArtPhotography/iStock/ Thinkstock
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