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Setting Global Food Standards: What Makes Hummus, Hummus?

June 1, 2014

Lebanese_style_hummusOver the past few years, American consumption of hummus has grown dramatically. Until the 1990s, hummus was unknown outside of specialty Middle Eastern grocers. Today, it’s in virtually every deli and grocery store across the country. It was even named the “official dip of the National Football League.”

Hummus is a simple dish of Middle Eastern origin that combines chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. While both Israel and Lebanon claim ownership of the dish, its exact origins remain a mystery. But growing global demand for the dish is generating some interesting politics.

Last week, Sabra, an Israeli company that dominates the US hummus market, filed a request with the Food and Drug Administration to develop standards to define hummus. The proposals would limit the use of the term “hummus” to describe dips made primarily of chickpeas and that contain a minimum of 5 percent tahini by weight. Similar standards are already in place in countries like Jordan and Israel.

The primary concern of Sabra is the use of the term “hummus” to describe a wide variety of dips and spreads made from black beans, white beans, lentils, soybeans, navy beans, and so on. From its perspective, Sabra has spent millions of dollars growing American recognition of hummus. The use of the term by other dip manufacturers, they fear, could engender confusion in consumers. The new rules, Sabra argues, would “promote honesty and fair detailing in the marketplace among hummus manufacturers.”

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