Once hummus became a widely enjoyed grocery-store staple, people at every level of the American food industry saw opportunity in the legume’s versatility. In the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean, chickpeas have been a common ingredient in everyday cooking for thousands of years. “The reason chickpea is grown and consumed so heavily in those areas is because of its nutritional value,” says Douglas Cook, the head of the chickpea lab at the University of California at Davis. “It’s an import species, and we’re a bit late to the party.”
One of the chickpea’s biggest sells to modern American consumers is its protein and fiber content. Like Greek yogurt, another familiar but foreign food that took off at roughly the same time, the chickpea’s high protein—15 grams a cup when cooked—is seen as evidence of its superior food value in a diet culture obsessed with protein. Indeed, Patodia says that one of Biena’s two biggest consumer demographics isn’t characterized by a particular location or income level, but by a common goal. “They’re struggling or aspiring to eat healthier but have a hard time with it,” she says. “It’s the original problem I was trying to solve for myself.”
For those with food allergies or dietary restrictions, meanwhile, chickpeas are a utility player. They tend to trigger fewer reactions than wheat or soy while furnishing a similar stable of flours, extracts, and nonanimal protein sources. Plus, twice as many Americans believe they have food allergies as actually do, so an ingredient’s status as allergy-friendly can propel it to popularity beyond just those with diagnosable problems. Bouzari sees this as a big motivator for his clients that are developing new products. “Chickpea is one of the five or 10 ingredients that, universally, everyone is okay with putting in their stuff,” he says.
For vegetarians, vegans, or omnivores who want to eat less meat, the bean is handy and transmutable. “It’s available across cuisines, so it’s a pretty easy thing to adapt to people’s diets,” says Alicia Kennedy, a vegan food writer and the host of the Meatless podcast. “It takes on so many flavors on its own, so it’s kind of the chicken of the bean world.” Chickpeas are common in Indian, Turkish, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, and Spanish food, just to name a few, so they’re an easy starting point for American cooks. “Chickpeas just aren’t an intimidating bean,” Kennedy says.
The number of Americans who eschew meat or animal products altogether has held roughly steady in recent decades, but the amount of meat eaten by Americans overall has declined: From 2005 to 2014, red-meat consumption in America dropped by almost one-fifth. The concerns about health and the environment that drove that drop have only intensified in the five years since. Chickpeas are inexpensive and broadly available, and the global cuisines they commonly appear in are ones that de-emphasize meat in ways that Americans are starting to see as more valuable. People in the United States aren’t trying anything new. Instead, they’re regressing to the global mean after generations of profligate meat consumption that many now consider unwise.