Hummus has been popular on US grocery store shelves for over 30 years now, but it really seems to be exploding in recent years. Nearly every deli aisle has an entire section devoted to several brands of small jars in a variety of increasingly creative flavors: there’s olive, red pepper, sun-dried tomato, lemon dill, of all the bagel, roasted beet, buffalo ranch, chocolate…
Chocolate? Yes, chocolate. The freeway to Hummus took a sharp turn on Dessert Avenue. Seasonal and limited-time offerings also saw the snickerdoodle, cookie dough, cake batter, and pumpkin apple pie.
The first time I saw the chocolate one, I stood there for a while, just staring and trying to understand, like you do the first time you look at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The trumpets sound. Ancient worlds collide. Some gleefully pick the forbidden fruit while others groan and grimace. Is it a party or is it hell?
Hummus is an ancient Middle Eastern food traditionally prepared with chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon and garlic. Although the flavors proliferating here in the West might seem a little crazy, there’s a long history of adding lots of different toppings in different countries: pickles, onions, pine nuts, herbs, radishes and so on. When it comes to dessert hummus, however, the most important question to answer might be: is there any garlic? There’s no. There’s a lot of sugar, though – it’s often the second or third ingredient.
It’s not just a passing fad. Cedar’s, Sabra, Boar’s Head, and even store brands like Trader Joe’s and Target have given dessert hummus a whirl. There are also recipes online. A Cedar’s Foods spokesperson told me that although the niche is smaller than for savory hummus lines, its dark chocolate flavor is popular enough to expand its market starting this month, as well as the planning an organic pumpkin spice hummus exclusive to Whole Foods for September 2022.
So we’ve established that it’s a Thing. But is it a dessert? Is it hummus? Let’s get down to business and taste some.
Boar’s Head Apple Pie Hummus
This is a limited edition product that follows the success of Boar Head’s Pumpkin Pie flavor last year. I didn’t expect it to be that good. The apple is a flavor, not a pureed or chopped mixture. The spices are complex, balanced. It’s not just the cinnamon that stings your eye; there is nutmeg and vanilla. Many flavors of savory hummus have oil as the main ingredient, so the texture is almost emulsified, but this one has a dense texture reminiscent of baked pumpkin pie filling and only has 60 calories per serving. .
It looks textured in the photo, but it’s not grainy. It enhances rather than competes with apple slices, adding warmth and depth as well as protein. On the flaky crackers, well, maybe he doesn’t own a hotel on Pie Place, but he certainly rents in the neighborhood.
Good & Gather Brownie Dough Dessert Hummus
It’s not mainstream if it’s not available at Target! Different brands of chocolate hummus vary based on the darkness of the cocoa and the amount of sugar added. This one from Target’s flagship brand features date paste for added sweetness. It’s definitely not in traditional recipes, and it makes the texture almost like chocolate pudding, very spreadable and smooth. It would make a great topping for a layer cake.
The chocolate flavor itself is from the dark side, not bitter but perhaps too much for many children. For more daring palates, however, it makes a real swoon of a snack with crackers, spread on bread like Nutella, or with that kind of banana s’mores-y I made.
I could see what happens if I mix it with cream cheese or nut butter for a baked brownie swirl. I mixed a big dollop into Chobani’s coffee yogurt this morning and almost cried.
Cedar Dark Chocolate Hummus
I’ve also tried Cedar’s similar Dark Chocolate Hommus, and think I prefer it for everyday snacking. The calories are the same (80), but without the dates, the texture is denser and less custard.
So…is it dessert?
In nutritional terms, have no illusions, dessert hummus is a miracle food. Besides having added sugars, it’s generally a bit low in protein and fiber, with no more than a gram or two of each per serving. However, I’m a big fan of making snacks look like treats in order to serve your long-term healthy diet goals, and this is the kind of product that can help with that approach, because compared to other dips and spreads, not bad at all. Most brands and flavors of dessert hummus contain around 60 to 80 calories for the standard two-tablespoon serving. Probably the closest dessert often mistaken for health is Nutella, which has 200 calories (not a typo!) for the same amount of spread. The usual chocolate fruit dip? 120 calories. Caramel sauce? 100 calories at least, and usually no protein or fiber to speak of. Dessert hummus is a bit sweet, but with that bit of a nutritional punch, it’s only fitting to keep it in the snack category when paired with other great choices.
It’s hummus, then?
So it’s not a bad sweet snack, but is it hummus? No garlic, like we said, but there’s usually no lemon, no tahini, and no olive oil. The only common ingredient between traditional hummus and dessert is mashed chickpeas. This makes calling dessert hummus analogous to calling coconut cream pie a dessert curry. Besides being nutritionally misleading, it co-opts a traditional ethnic food as a marketing gimmick. Eater did a great article on the aspect of cultural appropriation earlier this year, pointing out that it’s not the word that’s important, it’s ownership. Making a profit using the trappings of a culture even if you are disrespectful adds a literal insult to injury. (To its credit, PepsiCo’s co-owned Sabra called its now-discontinued version Dark Chocolate Dip & Spread, but that may have hurt sales because it doesn’t allude to health.)
On the other hand, at least one academic analysis has concluded that the commercial production of hummus has enhanced the desirability of traditional versions rather than watering them down; once hummus was everywhere, people became more interested in making and enjoying the “real” one at home and in local restaurants.
Nor is the controversy limited to East versus West. About 10 years ago, Lebanon and Israel fought over the right to claim the land of hummus with such fervor that the press started calling it “The Hummus War”. Everyone from the European Union to the Guinness Book of World Records got involved, and some of the rhetoric was heated, but ultimately it was decided that in legal terms at least, hummus belongs to all the region and to no country. The ingredients have been around longer than cookbooks, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the origins are unclear.
How did we go from fruit dip to politics in the Middle East?
As Arab America notes in its summary, the hummus wars were not about hummus; they were talking about war. Centuries of conflict are naturally reflected in every aspect of our lives, from food to clothing to language. Any dessert hummus controversy isn’t about hummus either; it is the story of suffering and exploitation, and it is difficult to navigate. Hopefully, we can collectively decide on a better name for novelty spreads using beans as a base, something that denotes wellness as much as wealth without relegating a food of the ages to marketing shorthand. Vegan spread? No pea butter? This is an extremely difficult subject, and I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that more chickpeas and less sugar are good things in more ways than one, even if it’s not hummus.