Most people don’t think of hummus as a food that’s ripe for innovation. In fact, for Sabra, a company that owns 60 percent of the U.S. hummus market, taste and texture are a serious responsibility, not to be tinkered with lightly.
Still, the company had a vision. Not to mess with its recipe but to take one of its fundamental ingredients and perfect it by going back to the seed. Sabra’s team of scientists and researchers set out to create an entirely new breed of sesame plant, the first of its kind in the U.S.
Project Destiny, as the company calls it, has been underway for six years but preliminary research started even earlier, says Susan Hickey, Sabra’s Senior Director of Sustainability and Procurement. The first step was to gather and analyze sesame samples from around the world. In other words, make some tahini.
The team made batches of tahini from each of the sesame samples in order to suss out the best components from each variety. “We knew that if we could combine those attributes together in the right way that we could develop…a gold standard sesame seed,” says Hickey. But creating a better sesame seed was just one part of the challenge. Sabra also needed it grown here in the U.S.
Sabra sources its chickpeas from farmers in the Pacific Northwest but the company has always had to look elsewhere for sesame. That’s because most of the crop grown in the U.S. isn’t right for tahini. It’s better for baked goods and sesame oil.
With this new breed of sesame, Sabra aims to change that. By developing a breed that can be grown in the U.S., says Hickey, the company will have better control over the “destiny” of their supply chain.
Creating the perfect tahini is a tricky combination of “science and art,” Hickey explains, which is what led Sabra to Equinom, a seed breeding company based in Israel. Oron Gar, PhD, is a plant scientist and the head manager of the sesame breeding team.
Though Equinom’s headquarters are based in Israel, Oron says most of his work is done in the fields. Sabra’s project brought him to farms in Texas and Oklahoma, where the sesame will continue to be grown in the future.
At first blush, sesame isn’t such a tricky plant, says Gar. As a graduate student, he worked with roses, a plant he describes as having a far more complicated genome.
Working quickly in an intensive breeding program, Gar says, sesame breeders can create a new breed in just “60 or 70 days,” from seed to seed. But it’s the combination of traits where things get tricky.
While the exact details are proprietary, scientists tinker with sugar levels, protein and even moisture content in order to get the flavor and texture just right for tahini.
There aren’t a whole lot of seed breeding teams in the world working on sesame’s taste, which means there isn’t a large well of knowledge for breeders to draw from, says Gar. That’s where Equinom’s technology comes in handy. The company uses traditional breeding methods, but speeds the process along by using computer models to help pinpoint each marker for selection.
“When you try to develop a product that is more complex,” explains Itay Dana, Equinom’s Vice President of Marketing, “you need to work in an optimization model, which means that you get the highest you can of each of the parameters.” It’s a delicate balance. “You need to reduce some to get more of the other,” he says.
That’s what made the work for Sabra unique, Itay adds. “We are not running to maximum, okay? We’re running to the optimum.”
Sabra wanted a great-tasting sesame seed but it also had to pay attention to crop yields to persuade those U.S. sesame growers. Selling farmers on a new crop without a proven track record isn’t easy, Hickey says, so protective traits like shatter-resistance to protect the seeds are an important part of the pitch.
About 70 miles west of San Antonio, Texas, Nathan Verstuyft is one of those new growers. At just 31 years old, he’s been farming since high school. But Verstuyft comes from a long line of farmers growing mostly corn and cotton. He was eager to have a project of his own.
When the research team at Sabra approached him with this new top secret crop experiment, he readily agreed. “It was kind of my first opportunity to branch off.”
Planting sesame can be a delicate operation. Weeds can alter the flavor. The seed is tiny, and “your plant depth is so critical,” Verstuyft explains. In Southwest Texas, a freak rain shower can wash herbicide into the seed, stunning the plant and forcing you to replant everything. Verstuyft worked closely with Mario Vazquez, an agronomist and senior sourcing manager at Sabra, to get the conditions just right.
And it worked. “The first year, we had bumper crops. They were awesome,” Verstuyft says. From there, Sabra began to narrow down the varieties to just the ones they liked, he says.
Verstuyft has had to keep mum about the top secret project for the past six years. “They didn’t want any other company knowing that the sesame was being grown in the U.S. yet,” he says. But the secret’s out now. The first batches of hummus made with the new sesame will make it into some of next year’s hummus, with widespread availability before the end of 2022.
Still, the work continues. Hickey says the team isn’t quite satisfied yet. “We’re comfortable planting it and using it for our tahini,” she says assuredly, but there’s still a way to go “before we get to the gold standard.” For now then, Project Destiny continues.