Image credit: Trader Joe’s website

A Taste of Home

As I was waiting in line at a local Trader Joe’s last month, my eyes lazily gazed over the promoted items near the checkout aisle — those last temptations you end up throwing in the cart. I suddenly found myself bewildered by a new item: an orange and white bag with two dancing elephants, labeled “BAMBA.”

Could this be the same Bamba I have known and loved since I was a little girl growing up in Israel? While I had seen packages of Bamba on occasion in the kosher section of large supermarkets, I had never seen this packaging before, nor had I ever seen Bamba featured so prominently.

Aba, Ima, Bamba!

Bamba is made of puffed corn covered in peanut butter. It’s by far the most popular snack in Israel, estimated to make up 22.4 percent of the snack market in 2014. It’s often given to babies as soon as they begin consuming solid food, and is viewed as a healthy snack option, produced of natural ingredients and fortified with vitamins and minerals (though according to its producer, the U.S. version is not fortified due to complex FDA regulation).

The creator of Bamba is a company called Osem, a giant in the world of Israeli packaged food that manufactures a diverse line of products including pastas, sauces, baked goods, and, of course, snacks. Bamba was launched in 1964 as a cheese-flavored snack, but by 1966 transformed into the peanut-flavored snack we know today. The name was meant to be easy for a young child to pronounce, and uses the same syllables as the Hebrew words for father (aba, pronounced “ah-bah”) and mother (ima, pronounced “eema”). In 1993, the company introduced the Bamba baby, an animated mascot with a high-pitched voice and an oversized diaper, who has since made an appearance in over 15 movies, in various television shows and video games, not to mention countless commercials alongside Israeli celebrities.

The snack has been sold in overseas markets for decades, mostly targeting Jewish and kosher consumers. Osem has plants around the world (including in China). Trader Joe’s version of Bamba is manufactured in Israel.

Breaking into the American Snack Market

From chips to crackers, granola bars to popcorn, snacks have global appeal and are big business. The global market for snack food is expected to reach $620 billion by 2021, according to industry analysis. American consumers — particularly Millennials — are substituting meals with frequent snacking throughout the day. In the United States alone, sales of salty snacks amounted to $27.7 billion in 2017. We ate $6.7 billion worth of crackers and popped $6.2 billion worth of nuts into our mouths.

Most snacks consumed in the United States are made here. Of the nearly $28 billion in salty snacks consumed in the United States last year (not including nuts) only a fraction of that figure was imported – $75 million in potato chips, and $277 million in other salty snacks. And import duties on these products are relatively modest – 6.4 percent on average for potato chips and 2.3 percent on other savory snacks.

The Bamba at Trader Joe’s, however, would not be subject to any tariffs; snack foods are covered by duty-free provisions in the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement, entered into in 1985. Of the $23 billion worth of products the United States imported from Israel in 2014, $61 million was in the category of snack food. I wonder how much of that figure in the future will be accounted for by Bamba.

Could Trade in Bamba Fix Our Peanut Allergies?

You may be surprised to hear that 90 percent of Israelis regularly eat Bamba, including toddlers. In the United States, peanuts have been removed from airplane snack packets, and children cannot bring peanut butter sandwiches to school to protect allergic kids from serious reactions. The caution reflects a new reality in the United States, where peanut allergy rates among children have been skyrocketing in recent years, reaching percent in 2017. In comparison, that allergy rate among children in Israel is only 0.2 percent.

Israeli parents have long theorized that the low rates of peanut allergies among their children is the result of feeding their kids Bamba from a very early age. Osem and enthusiastic parents happily learned that their theory can now be supported by science. A study led by Dr. Gideon Lack of King’s College London, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015, found that British babies who consumed the equivalent of around four heaping spoons of peanut butter each week were about 80 percent less likely to develop a peanut allergy by the time they turned five years old. The study made big news, and has even resulted in change in guidelines for the introduction of peanut protein to infants who are at risk of developing a peanut allergy.

Millennial Parents May Spur a New Generation of American Bamba Lovers

Trader Joe’s has built its brand as a neighborhood grocery store with a wide selection of foods from around the world. Privately owned by Aldi Nord, most of Trader Joe’s products are self-branded, and many offer the sophistication and idiosyncrasy much desired by urban millennial shoppers who are now starting families of their own.

Adding Bamba to the Trader Joe’s family of products helps the chain meet growing demand for peanut-based products by nutrition-conscious parents. Before you know it, thanks to trade, this Israeli snack food will spur a whole new generation of Americans who feel the urge to call out – Aba, Ima, Bamba!