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Hummus is a tasty heart-healthy dip

by Doris Penner

Hummus is a dish that originated in the Middle East but has become popular around the world. Based on chickpeas, it is a dip or spread eaten by Canadians with vegetables, pita bread or crackers particularly as an appetizer or snack—and a very nutritious one whether they realize it or not. Since arriving in Spain where chickpeas (or garbanzos as they are known here) are widely eaten, I have realized that hummus fits right in under the banner of the much acclaimed wholesome “Mediterranean diet.”

Generally speaking, health benefits attributed to hummus are an improved digestive system and regulation of blood sugar, as well as lowering the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. It should be noted that any dish is only as healthy as its components, and when ingredients in hummus are examined, one realizes that while pureed chickpeas are at the centre, the dip contains other foods and flavourings that meld together to form a tasty and nutritious spread. Ingredients found in classic hummus besides chickpeas are tahini (sesame paste), garlic, lemon juice and olive oil in addition to seasonings (each tradition may add further ingredients such as, for example, pesto, cheese, avocado or tomatoes).

Rich source of protein

Let's check the ingredients that go into hummus (either the commercial product or the one made in your own kitchen from scratch) to analyze what nutrients it brings to the table. As other legumes (or pulses), chickpeas are a rich source of protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol that meats—source of the highest quality of protein—add to the diet. This means hummus contains amino acids, the building blocks of protein, which the body uses for repairing tissues, building healthy muscles and supporting brain functions. The roles protein plays in the body are possible because of the assistance of B vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron and zinc also present in chickpeas.

Chickpeas are also a good source of fibre which help to maintain a healthy digestive system by moving food through the digestive tract and bringing relief from constipation. In addition, fibre keeps harmful toxins from binding to the lining of the large intestine, which reduces the risk of colon cancer. It is interesting to note chickpeas also contain isoflavins and phytoestrogens which are thought to have a role in reducing the risk of lung cancer.

Because chickpeas are high in fibre which denotes complex carbohydrates, hummus is considered to be a food with a low glycemic index. This means glucose is absorbed slowly into the bloodstream, helping to regulate blood sugar levels. This has implications for keeping hyperglycemia or diabetes in check.

Low amount of fat

Olive oil, another ingredient in classic hummus is considered to be a “healthy oil;” it has a high monounsaturated fat content and a low amount of saturated fats. This means the oil helps lower harmful LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol which helps keep the cardiovascular system healthy. In fact, olive oil is sometimes called “heart-healthy oil” and is thought to be one of the reasons why people following the Mediterranean diet have a lower incidence of heart attack and stroke.

Other ingredients in hummus are tahini or sesame paste which also contains olive oil and contributes protein and calcium, lemon juice and garlic, both of which contain nutrients that improve immune functions.

The conclusion is that hummus used as a dip for vegetables or as a spread for whole grain bread or crackers is a very healthy snack indeed. It is possible to purchase an acceptable commercial product, but make sure to read labels in order to avoid artificial flavourings and hydrogenated oil.

Hummus is very easy to prepare at home if you have a food processor. Cooks in Spain start from scratch with raw chickpeas, but using canned chickpeas is fine and will make the procedure quick and easy. To make your own hummus, whirl the following ingredients together in a food processor until smooth: 1 cup (drained) chickpeas, ¼ cup tahini, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 clove minced garlic. If too thick add a tablespoon or two of water or broth. Season with salt and pepper if desired. For serving, garnish with thin lemon slices, a sprinkle of paprika and olives.