Food by VICE

Wellness Brands Are Trying to Convince Americans to Eat Chickpeas for Dessert

“I didn't think I wanted Thin Mint-flavored chickpeas. But then I ate the whole bag.”

by Bettina Makalintal
Jan 2 2019, 9:23pm

Photo Courtesy of Boar's Head

The story of dessert hummus resembles a bingo card of modern wellness food tropes, in which the free space is taking something beloved and making it controversial: almond “milk,” pea protein “meat,” dessert “hummus.” It doesn’t take a long time on the phone with Delighted By Hummus founder Makenzie Marzluff to start filling in the other squares.

With speech sprinkled with words like “holistic“ and “high-vibrational,“ Marzluff tells me that when she started the company in 2015, she was coming out of a year of personal struggle. “I heard this deep intuition that ‘your purpose is to spread your glitter,’” she said. “It hit me so profoundly to spread my glitter through dessert hummus.”

If that concept escapes you, it seems you’re not alone—the company clarifies on its website that spreading one’s glitter means that people can “be the light they are out in the world.” For Marzluff, dessert hummus was a new version of the chickpea, and of herself; effectively, their ethos suggests that self-improvement can come by way of dessert hummus.

That, by the way, is a blend of chickpeas that forgoes tahini and garlic in favor of cinnamon, vanilla beans, and cocoa powder, and comes in flavors like snickerdoodle, brownie batter, and pumpkin pie. As you might expect, this entire concept is contested: Delighted By’s hummus has been both a Shark Tank success story and a point of online derision. Search the phrase on Twitter and the posts alternate between affirmations and disgust. A 2018 roundup in Bon Appetit listed sweet hummus—of which Delighted By’s product was allegedly the first—as a food trend they hope will disappear in 2019.

Perhaps to the dismay of dessert hummus critics everywhere, this is just the tip of the sweet chickpea iceberg. As eaters nationwide increase their focus on health-conscious, plant-based foods, they look increasingly to nuts and legumes—think of the surge of nut milks and pasta made from black beans or edamame at the grocery store.

And while the idea of dessert hummus or chocolate chickpeas might first be met with skepticism, it’s becoming clear that many people are getting past that mental block: the dessert chickpea is seeing a surge nationwide. A chain in New York City is mixing hummus milkshakes in ice cream–like flavors of butter pecan and strawberry. In Portland, Oregon, one restaurateur is churning chickpeas into ice cream. In Boston, another entrepreneur is covering them with mint chocolate.

It’s not just big cities, either. Recently, at a Whole Foods in suburban Pennsylvania, I found a container of “good for you” cookie dough that relied mainly on chickpeas, and on a shelf nearby was chickpea granola with the tagline “bye bye hummus!” Deli supplier Boar’s Head makes a dark chocolate dessert hummus that can be found at places as widespread as Stop and Shop and Kroger. Even chickpea milk might make it onto shelves soon; one of the brands in PepsiCo’s food start-up accelerator program is YoFiit, who make an alt-milk called Miylk10.

For context, around the world, desserts with chickpeas aren’t new. Italy’s panzerotti con ceci stuffs pastry with sweet chickpea puree. Across south Asia, chickpea flour forms cakes and desserts. The Filipino shaved ice halo-halo is heaped with toppings including chickpeas in syrup. Stateside, those desserts haven’t quite hit the mainstream.

That global inspiration—plus a desire for a healthier snack—motivated Poorvi Patodia’s Biena Snacks. Based on the outskirts of Boston, the company, which she started in 2012, sells roasted chickpeas akin to the Indian snacks of her childhood.

“When I initially created the brand, I was trying to solve a problem for myself: I was pregnant and I was looking for a crunchy, salty snack that I didn't feel so guilty about eating,” said Patodia.

Until 2017, Biena’s offerings fit the expected flavor profile: sea salt, barbecue, ranch. While those were popular, people wanted something more decadent that still seemed healthy, Patodia said, so she ventured into the caramel- and chocolate-covered chickpea. Aside from versions covered in salted caramel and dark chocolate, Biena has also collaborated with Girl Scouts on a Thin Mint version.

Those taste fairly similar to a Thin Mint—though there’s a noticeable aftertaste of chickpea. And while I’m not sure I’d say I liked them, I found myself having quickly finished the bag. It worked, I guess.

That the chocolate chickpea worked initially surprised Patodia, too. But when she thought about it further, the chickpea as a sweet ingredient made sense: though Patodia grew up eating salted chickpeas, she recalled chickpea flour’s presence in Indian desserts. “That was me realizing that it’s just another paradigm shift,” she said.

To dispel the idea of sweet chickpeas as weird, she likened them to chocolate-covered nuts or pretzels, or even sweetened puffed rice. “There are all kinds of snacks that were primarily eaten as being savory, and you’re either now eating them in cereal or as savory snacks that have gone sweet,” Patodia said. “If you think about it from that perspective, it’s like ‘oh yeah, it’s just the natural progression of the category.’”

According to Patodia, Biena’s customer base is two-fold: health food trendsetters who see the chickpea as the latest thing, and people who struggle with the idea of “healthy eating” but want foods that are make them feel good about what they’re eating.

“People want to eat healthier today, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to indulge,” she said. “We want to do it in a way that makes people feel good about the chocolate that they're eating.”

Though Delighted By Hummus couches its mission statement in the terminology of wellness, its mission statement isn’t far off from Biena’s. For Marzluff, who has experienced “body confidence stuff and icky stuff around food” her whole life and has training in both dietetics and health coaching, it’s part of a larger goal to help people not feel bad about food.

The people who gravitate to her product, she says, are generally those with a sweet tooth who might otherwise be used to eating pints of ice cream. Her goal is for dessert hummus to be an alternative to foods that might inspire bad feelings. “Instead of having ice cream, people can have a few tablespoons of our hummus and be extremely satisfied,” said Marzluff.

In Portland, Oregon, restaurateur Micah Camden sought out the chickpea to solve his own health issues. Co-owner of Boxer Ramen, Super Deluxe, and Blue Star Donuts, Camden once relied on pints of Ben & Jerry’s after long shifts. Now that he’s in his forties, his body no longer plays well with dairy, so during a trip to Miami, a chickpea drink at a vegan restaurant gave him some ideas. So he made chickpea milk, then put it in an ice cream maker. The result wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t bad.

Camden has been pursuing the concept of chickpea-based ice cream for almost two years now, and he’s confident that it won’t be a hard sell when his shop Little Bean opens later this month. Not only will Little Bean’s ice cream be free of dairy, gluten, and nuts, but so will the house-made cones, scones, cookies, and alt-milk for coffee; they’ll all rely on chickpeas, too.

When Camden saunters into the VICE office, freezer bag of samples in tow, he’s just confident enough to make it clear that he knows he’s got a good idea. Still, I’m skeptical—but to my surprise, the six pints he’s brought for me to try are all actually good. There’s a mint matcha that’s pleasingly refreshing and a blackberry basil that’s as rich in fruit flavor as sorbet; my favorite is a creamy cold-brew coffee.

Despite being made of little more than chickpeas, none of them taste that way, and there’s none of the iciness or lingering flavor that docks points from soy- or coconut-based ice creams. Chickpeas have a prominent flavor, which could be why they’ve largely been used in very specific, savory ways. While Biena Snacks and Delighted By Hummus use flavors like chocolate and vanilla to mask the taste of chickpea, Camden’s approach calls for removing it entirely.

Getting the milk to be free of chickpea flavor and smell was a process Camden discovered by accident. Chickpea milk has a few simple steps: soak, blend, strain. Once, he got sick in the middle. While he recovered, the blended milk sat in his fridge, and gravity created three layers. Skimming off the top layer left a neutral, rich milk that could be the base for any ice cream flavor, in addition to another layer of sediment could be used in cones and pastries.

While, for Camden, the original motivation for envisioning the chickpea as an ice cream base was his own health, he thinks that seeing the chickpea as more than a savory ingredient could have promising effects, especially when compared to health food staples like soybeans or almonds.

First, because it’s a legume, the chickpea is safe for people with nut allergies, for whom the boom in almond, cashew, or hazelnut milks has been more of a bust. Oat milk, while a promising non-nut contender, struggles to supply its burgeoning demand.

While functionally similar to the soybean, the chickpea is free from its image problems; according to Camden, soy is inseparable from “the stigma of Monsanto.” He doesn’t mention it, but there’s the alt-right thing, too, with soy and tofu having been co-opted as a pejorative by the new wave of young fascists.

Even more compelling may be the environmental argument. It’s long been acknowledged that almond milk—while good for vegans and the dairy-sensitive—is bad for the environment. As Mother Jones reported, that’s largely because almonds require a shocking amount of water: over one gallon for a single almond—and that figure becomes even more troubling given that 99 percent of American-grown almonds come from drought-ridden regions of California.

The chickpea, however, can thrive in drier conditions due to its deep root system. They thrive in places like Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota; the ones Camden’s using are from eastern Washington, just about 60 miles away. Already farmed on a mass basis, the chickpea doesn’t pose any immediate shortage concerns, either.

For Camden, that makes the chickpea the most obvious choice: “Almonds are insanely expensive,” he said. “Beans literally cost beans.”