A decade or so ago, party dips were relegated to guacamole, salsa and the occasional queso. The surge in popularity of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, however, has seen a huge spike in the number of hummus enthusiasts, a fortunate event since the dip is both delicious and healthy, right? Well, it can be, if you do hummus correctly.
"Hummus is a great trifecta of macronutrients — combining a good source of protein, fiber and healthy fat," says Amnon Gilady, hummus expert and owner of Falafel King Foods in an email. "At the same time it's also a micronutrient dense dip providing good calcium and iron content, and packed with vitamin E and B and minerals like magnesium and potassium."
Hummus is also a dream for those with dietary restrictions, as it can easily be made to be soy-, nut-, dairy- and gluten-free. As with many otherwise healthy foods, nutritionists caution people to be mindful of what you eat it with (veggies rather than chips) and watch portion sizes because it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
What's in Hummus?
The main ingredient in hummus is chickpeas, which are plentiful in the Mediterranean and Middle East. One of the healthiest legumes out there, chickpeas pack a seriously impressive portfolio of benefits. "Chickpeas are high in plant-based protein, magnesium, potassium, and have a low glycemic index. This means that chickpeas will not cause a spike in blood sugar," says Danielle Keith, holistic health coach and founder of Boca Raton, Florida-based CodeGreen Wellness in an email.
"Chickpeas also contain fiber. Fiber helps with regularity and helps to prevent constipation," emails Carly Johnston, registered dietitian and co-owner of New England Nutrition Advisors, noting that this high fiber content can help promote weight loss and cardiac health.
Probably the next best-known component of hummus is tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds, that's also full of protein. "Sesame seeds are packed with vitamins and minerals like folate, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, selenium and zinc," Keith explains.
Other commonly included ingredients are some form of oil, garlic, lemon juice and various ground spices for flavor, like cumin. "The olive oil used to puree the chickpeas is a source of healthy and unsaturated fat," adds Johnston.
When Good Hummus Goes Wrong.
So traditional hummus sure sound healthy. However, store-bought hummus often is higher in saturated fats and sodium while lower in fiber and protein than the one you could make yourself. But that doesn't mean all store-bought hummus is terrible. For instance, 2 tablespoons of "Classic Hummus" from the popular brand Sabra has 80 calories, 2 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fat (only 1 of which is saturated fat), 2 grams of fiber and no sugar.
Still, there are some red flags to watch out for with manufactured hummus, according to Dr. Luiza Petre, cardiologist and weight loss and management specialist. "Thoroughly check the ingredients, avoid any brand that substitutes olive oil with rapeseed or sunflower oil as a lower quality ingredient destroys the benefit of the unsaturated fats," she says in an email interview. "Also be on the lookout for added ingredients such as corn flour or sugar, which can be added to thicken and also flavor varieties like sweet chili, or caramelized onion."
Even homemade hummus can go awry, typically because people overdo it on a couple of key ingredients, particularly the olive oil. Traditional hummus only calls for a drizzle of olive oil on top of the finished product. "Many people in North America (including my mom) use olive oil to thin out the hummus, but actually we should be using straight up water!" says Paula Hingley creator of the website How to Make Dinner in an email. "Olive oil is of course a healthy fat, but too much of any fat is no good."
People also often go too crazy on the tahini, which is great for you in moderation but can snowball into disaster quickly. "The amount of tahini definitely matters as the more tahini, the more fat it has," explains Jill Nussinow, registered dietician and cookbook author. In fact, a 2 tablespoon serving of pure tahini packs nearly 200 calories and just over 16 grams of fat!
DIY Hummus Tips
There are a few easy ways to making the healthiest and tastiest homemade hummus. Kristian Morey, an outpatient dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, recommends using dry beans instead of canned because they are cheaper and lower in sodium. Just soak them overnight to make the cooking time shorter.
It's also easy enough to avoid the oil-related pitfalls. "If you are concerned about keeping calories down in your homemade hummus, there are many oil-free recipes available online which substitute regular or chickpea water and often suggest using a high speed blender to attain the same creamy texture as those containing oil," Morey says.
Finally, swap pita chips for carrots, cucumbers or celery or sugar snap peas to keep the calories down and boost the nutrition and "still get that crunch you crave," she says.