Have Israelis Lost Their Lust for Hummus?

Double-digit decreases have makers of prepared salads scratching their heads, but many say health concerns are behind the trend.

Hummus Delight
Yaniv Sade

Has Israel’s love affair with hummus suddenly ended?

Sales of prepared salads – a category that includes a range of products but is dominated by the creamy spread made from chickpeas – have dropped by double-digits this year: 11.8% in January from a year ago and 10.8% in February, according to the market research firm Storenext.

There are no official figures yet for March, but sources at Israel’s supermarket chains report sales for hummus and other prepared salads were down anywhere from 7% to 12% compared with a year ago.

“It’s a strange, unexplained phenomenon that I’ve never seen in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” said an executive at one of the big prepared-salad makers, who asked not to be identified. “We’re used to the seasonal phenomenon of prepared salad sales falling during the cold winter months – in November and December they fall a little bit but they revive and start growing again in January. This year, it didn’t happen.”

The mystery of the disappearing appetite for hummus isn’t confined to Israel. In the United States, where Israeli makers lead the market, sales have been declining as well.

But Americans only discovered hummus a few years ago and may now be moving on to other trendy foods. In Israel, hummus stands along cottage cheese and Bamba at the apex of the national food pyramid: Sales of prepared salads reach 750 million shekels ($200 million) annually, and half of that is for hummus.

Hummus makers – the biggest being Osem, which sells its product under the Zabar brand, and Strauss’ Achla line – are not sure what’s behind the downturn. “We’ve tried to connect the decline to several possible factors, but none of them can fully explain the phenomenon,” said the executive.

One possible explanation is the World Health Organization’s warning last October about the carcinogenic risks of eating processed meats. Hummus and meat sales go hand in hand, said the executive, and meat sales have never recovered from the WHO report.

Another theory is that this year the two big hummus makers have been marketing less aggressively. Usually they launch new products in January, as salad sales begin picking up. But this year Osem held back the launch of its “Hummus-Tahina” product till February.

Some in the industry also point an accusing finger at a Channel 10 television expose on the allegedly poor quality of Israeli salads broadcast last month. But the industry executive discounted that. “The expose led to a further drop in sales for the category and certainly hurt the industry, but sales had already been falling in January,” he said.

Another unnamed supermarket executive said more than the TV expose, sales are falling because consumers are more health conscious. “They feel that prepared hummus is less healthy than hummus they prepare at home or buy from a hummus stand,” he said. “So we’ve been seeing rising sales of raw tehina and chickpeas.”

Osem has seen its sales drop the fastest and its market share has shrunk as a result to 34.8% in February from 36.1% in December. Strauss salad sales have fallen just 4-9% in the two months and its share has grown to 33.8% from 30.6%.