How the Tiny Chickpea Is Beating Big Tobacco

by James Brumley | May 3, 2013 9:06 am

The nation’s newfound love affair with health and fitness isn’t exactly a secret. It’s ushered the rise of GNC Holdings (NYSE:GNC[1]), which has gained over 170% since its 2011 IPO, while health clubs like Life Time Fitness (NYSE:LTM[2]) are seeing record profits.

If there was any lingering doubt that fitness-mania was anything less than a monster-sized paradigm shift, though, there’s yet another layer of proof.

A Shrinking Market

The latest evidence: Fewer and fewer Americans are exposing themselves to the inherent dangers of smoking. In a poll taken in the middle of last year, only 20% of the U.S. population regularly smoked cigarettes — tied for a multi-year low, and well below the 27% (or so) of the populous that regularly lit up in the 90s.

The downside to this trend, of course, is that tobacco farmers continue to feel the pinch.

For perspective, in 1997, the nation’s tobacco farmers grew more than 800,000 acres of tobacco, and sold it for a total $3.2 billion. By 2011, those figures had fallen to 325,000 acres and $1.1 billion.

Translation: The tobacco industry is only about a third of what it was just over 15 years ago. As a result, all farmers are struggling with a shrinking tobacco market, while many — and the small farms in particular — are being forced out of the tobacco business altogether.

It’s only been within the past couple of years, however, that these displaced tobacco farmers have found something worthwhile they can grow besides tobacco.

Back in Business

To the average person, growing something besides tobacco may seem like a simple matter of planting different seeds. It’s not that easy, however. The climate and type of soil of a particular locale may mean some crops grow well there, while others don’t.

Sweet potatoes and pears are a couple of the preferred alternatives … but it’s actually the little chickpea that’s put so many of these farmers back in business.

And that’s thanks in part to the aforementioned health focus.

See, chickpeas are used to make hummus — a creamy spread that comes in a few different flavors; garlic seems to be the favorite. It goes great with crackers or veggies and is relatively healthy — at least compared to competing spreads like cheese or ranch dip. Hummus is high in protein, low in fat and iron-rich.

At this point, 14% of Americans have enjoyed hummus. Sure, that’s not a significant market share … yet. But at the pace it’s growing in popularity, that market share could be much greater quite soon.

U.S.-driven hummus revenue soared from only $5 million in 1995 to $325 million by 2010, and that was before the spread hit a critical mass in the U.S. There’s still plenty of room to grow, though. The nation’s flavored spread market (mostly hummus) reached $530 million last year, which is a tiny fraction of the United States’ $82 billion annual snack market.

All told, the hummus industry bought the bulk of the 332 million pounds of chickpeas produced in the U.S. last year — a yield that was more than 50% larger than 2011’s production. At 40 cents per pound last year — over $115 million worth — former tobacco farmers are thrilled hummus is a hit. Growers expect to plant about 3% more this year.

Into Action

For investors, one of the challenges with farms moving away from tobacco and towards edible foods is finding a stock or stocks that are directly affected by the transition. But there is opportunity in the trend, even if it just means avoiding pitfalls.

At the losing end of tobacco’s demise and the chickpea’s ascension are, of course, the pure cigarette plays like Philip Morris (NYSE:PM[3]) or Lorillard (NYSE:LO[4]). Both have managed to grow even against strong “quit smoking” campaigns, but that’s ultimately a losing battle.

As for the winners of the hummus race, there are practically no direct plays; most chickpea farmers are small-time and not publicly traded.

But PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP[5]) is a blue-chip name with a hand in the hummus jar. It’s co-owner of a joint venture called Sabra Dipping, which is the biggest name in the hummus world. Market research company Information Resources Inc. estimates that Sabra sold $315 million worth of hummus last year.

Kraft Foods (NASDAQ:KRFT[6]) is also in the hummus game, via its Athenos brand.

While both Kraft and Pepsico are quality names, hummus is but a small piece of each company’s revenue mix. Until more dedicated plays appear, though, that’s the best way to play this amazing trend.

Just keep your eyes peeled for smaller growers or crop-support companies, or maybe even niche hummus producers. The bigger players are in acquisition mode.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not have a position in any of the aforementioned securities. 

  1. GNC:
  2. LTM:
  3. PM:
  4. LO:
  5. PEP:
  6. KRFT:

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