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Israelis love hummus. They love it in pita or in a bowl, in the dining room or outside. They like it plain or with additions like whole chickpeas, tehina or cumin.

Manufacturers know of this affection (some would say obsession ) and alongside regular hummus, which is the most popular item in the genre, they sell the ground chickpea condiment in a variety of different textures and flavors.

The sheer breadth of the choice at the supermarket can be dizzying. According to the Nielsen market research company, the category of packaged hummus commanded sales of NIS 384 million here in 2010, more than all the other categories of refrigerated salads and spreads together, which came to NIS 360 million.

In both - hummus and salads and spreads - Tzabar is the market leader, with a 43.8% market share in hummus, with Ahla in second place at 30.6%.

In the salad and spread category, Tzabar's market share is 36.6% and Ahla, the No. 2, far behind at 23.1%.

But the difference between Tzabar and Ahla spreads and salads, and other brands too, doesn't end with name and taste: their nutritional values differ widely too.

In the case of dairy products, for instance, nutritional information such as fat content and calories are clearly displayed. Not so in the case of chilled spreads, from hummus to babaganush: You have to look hard, and what you find will be highly instructive.

What should you look for when choosing a prepared spread or salad of these sorts? Which offer the best nutritional value?

Breaking down the content

Given the vastness of the range, for this article we chose the most popular brands of hummus and packaged salads based on data from Nielsen, and presented the nutritional values and components to two senior clinical dieticians at two of Israel's health maintenance organizations: Michal Sukman, a clinical dietitian with Maccabi and Einat Mazor of Clalit. We did not tell them what brands they were from.

We also looked at prices, which can be substantially different from company to company. Generally speaking, Miki Delicatessen (Maadanei Miki ) is cheapest by weight and Mashani is the costliest. Mashani also sells the smallest containers - 300 grams.

In the category of hummus, Tzabar, Miki and Ahla offer bargain containers of 1 kilo, which are cheaper per gram and therefore are the best buys, assuming you can eat that much hummus.

Despite the homey image of these salads and spreads, the fact is they're industrial products rich in fat and sodium. The store-bought salads also contain preservatives and in some cases, the oils the manufacturers use are low in nutritional value.

But if you're going to buy manufactured spreads rather than make them yourself, the dieticians have some guidelines for you.

1. The fat content of the various brands differs enormously. Ahla's smooth hummus spread contains 15.8% fat, while Tzabar's smooth hummus contains nearly double that, 29%. Roast eggplant salads made by Tzabar and Ahla contain 8.5% fat but Mashani's contains just 2.9%. Ahla's red cabbage in mayonnaise contains 11.8% fat while Miki's has more than double: 23%.

The leading manufacturers, Tzabar and Ahla, tried to launch a series of "lite" salads, but they didn't take off and were dumped after a year. Apparently these low-fat versions were simply perceived as not tasting as good. It evidently is a question of perception alone: Note that while Ahla's low-fat hummus had 13% fat, it didn't pass the public taste test, while Ahla's regular hummus has only 15.8% fat - not a great difference.

"It isn't that the 'lite' version of our hummus failed taste tests," says Eli Itzkin, manager of the Strauss fresh-foods division. "We think the public's perception of the product as lite led consumers to assume it was less tasty."

In hindsight, it was a mistake, he said: The company's solution was to lower fat in its products without calling them "lite."

Aware that less fat is good for nearly everybody, not just people with weight issues, Strauss set out to reduce fat content two years ago, Itzkin says.

"Our hummus contained about 24% fat. We lowered it to 16%," he says. "Also, we started using canola oil in our products rather than soybean oil. Our concept is that if the salads have healthier ingredients, they'll taste better." Product development took about a year , he says, because the company needed to preserve the element of taste with its new recipes.

Tzabar also offers a classic hummus branded "Taam shel paam" - blast from the past, if you like - which has 15% fat. Other smooth-textured salads by Miki and Mashani also have a fat component of about 18%.

2. Take note what the main ingredient in the product is and what the secondary ones are too. You want products that contain as much of the raw material as possible (such as chickpeas, eggplant ) and as little as possible of additives such as oil and water.

Some manufacturers, such as Ahla and Tzabar, highlight the main ingredient, which can constitute as much as 50% of the finished product, but Miki and Mashani do not. Sukman and Mazor recommend therefore looking at the proportion of other ingredients, which will affect nutritional value. For instance, in the case of red cabbage salad or eggplant with mayonnaise, they recommend choosing the product with the least mayonnaise, which will probably have the lowest fat count.

"Low-fat eggplant salad can be a good substitute for a spread on bread, but industrial eggplant salads with mayonnaise are not low-fat," says Sukman. "Their fat content is 15% to 28%. When you take a vegetable, which is considered highly healthy, and add mayonnaise, which gets low point on the healthy scale, you ruin the vegetable."

As for red cabbage salad, manufacturers add sugar, she points out, which is something diabetics need to watch out for.

3. Also pay attention to sodium content, which tends to be a problem with industrialized foods. Consuming large amounts of sodium over time has been linked with various health problems involving the heart and vascular system, among others. In most categories the industrial salads contain from 300 to 500 milligrams of sodium per 100 gram, while low-sodium versions typically contain 100mg per 100 grams.

In the category of sodium, the differences between the companies were much less than in the category of fat - until you get to tehina. There, Tzabar's tehina contained 530 grams of sodium per 100 grams, while Mashani's contained 344. There were also differences in the eggplant salad category: Ahla's had 681 mg of sodium per 100 grams of product, while Tzabar and Mashani had 350 to 380 mg.

4. Back to hummus. Generally speaking, no oil should be added to the dip at all: just water and tehina should create that familiar texture. But since tehina costs more than oil, most hummus products contain oil as well. The question is what type.

Ahla is the only one using canola oil, which is considered relatively healthy. The others use vegetable oils and that's all that's written on the packaging: It could be soybean oil, which Sukman and Mazor say is less healthy, but you can't know.

Tzabar said in response that it is committed to serving the consumer with tasty, authentic hummus, similar in taste and texture to restaurant-made hummus.

"Our success in this is what made us the unchallenged leader in the category for eight years," the company stated. "As the market leader, Tzabar offers about 20 different types of hummus salad that differ in taste, texture, spicing, and fat content. Hummus 'Taam shel paam' contains 15.5% fat. Hummus Abu Maher contains 13%, Jerusalemite hummus contains 28% and ordinary hummus contains 29%. The wide range assures that every consumer can choose the best hummus based on their preferences."

Miki commented that it invests great effort in meeting the tastes and demands of consumers, and uses ingredients that result in a home-cooked taste.