Hummus, the chickpea-based dip that’s a staple in many Middle Eastern cuisines, is on the rise in the U.S. Multiple factors are fueling its growing popularity, according to the USDA: Hummus is naturally gluten-free, and Americans now have bigger appetites for healthier snacks. But how healthy is hummus? Here’s what the experts say.
What is hummus made of?
Traditional hummus is made from a blend of chickpeas, olive oil, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice and spices, and this mix makes for a nutrient-dense food, says Elizabeth G. Matteo, a registered dietitian at Boston University’s Sargent Choice Nutrition Center. “It generally offers more vitamins and minerals than many other dips or spreads,” she says, since it includes calcium, folate and magnesium.
This blend of nutrients can also stabilize blood sugar and help prevent heart disease, says Los Angeles-based registered dietitian Lindsey Pine. Hummus also contains what she calls the “trifecta of macronutrients”—healthy fat, protein and fiber—that keep you full and satisfied, which is key to maintaining a healthy weight.
Want to eat healthier? Sign up for TIME’s guide to better eating.
Just like beans, lentils, peas and other dry, edible legume seeds that fall into the ‘pulses’ category, chickpeas are a good source of protein and fiber compared to other plants. But don’t expect to get your daily dose of either from hummus alone: a two-tablespoon serving of the dip contains two grams of protein and one gram of fiber. (The daily government recommendation is about 50 grams of protein per day for an average adult; for dietary fiber, the recommendations are about 25 grams a day for women and around 38 grams a day for men.) Chickpeas also are not a complete source of protein, meaning they don’t have all of the essential amino acids that meat, fish, dairy and eggs do.
What’s the healthiest way to eat hummus?
Though hummus is packed with healthful ingredients, you still shouldn’t eat a whole tub in a sitting. “It is relatively high in calories due to the tahini and oil content,” says Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
A store-bought brand of hummus typically contains around 70 calories for a two-tablespoon portion, so “it is very easy to overdo it,” adds Pine. She suggests buying pre-portioned packs or portioning hummus out yourself before digging in to keep serving sizes in check.
Another thing to watch out for is what you pair with hummus. Dip lots of pita bread, chips or crackers, and you can derail a healthy meal or snack easily, Pine says. Instead, she suggests dipping raw crunchy vegetables, such as bell peppers, broccoli, celery and carrots, or using a dollop in a salad, while Matteo likes to incorporate hummus into homemade salad dressings or atop Mediterranean-style proteins like falafel, fish or chicken. If you still want to enjoy hummus with bread, Matteo suggests swapping in a whole grain pita for a regular one for the extra protein and fiber.
What’s the healthiest kind of hummus to buy?
Many brands overdo it on sodium, so check the nutrition label. Aim for a brand that has about 80 mg of sodium or less per two-tablespoon serving, Pine says. It’s also important to read the ingredients list; choose a brand that contains ingredients as close to the traditional recipe of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, olive oil, salt and spices as possible, and avoid brands that add other types of oils, preservatives or sugar.
Better yet, she recommends, try making hummus at home. You can use canned chickpeas, but if they contain too much sodium for your taste or health needs, try a canned brand that doesn’t add salt. You can also use dry chickpeas after soaking and cooking them, or try frozen green chickpeas (whose color simply comes from being harvested earlier) from the frozen produce section of the grocery store.
Purée your pulses in a mini food processor, says Lemond, and you can create your own version to suit your tastes—whether by adding oils, spices or lime or lemon juice, or by mixing in other pulses like beans, lentils or peas, or by adding vegetables like edamame and beets. “Don’t be afraid to experiment,” she says.