Trader Joe’s has one of the most popular generic labels of any national supermarket chain. When buying this brand, customers don’t feel like they’re purchasing a knock-off version of a pricier product that they love. They actually feel like they’re getting something with added value — healthier and exclusive, even.
Eater burst that bubble in August, exposing the identities of several anonymous big-name suppliers behind Trader Joe’s products — Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips are likely repackaged as Trader Joe’s Pita Chips with Sea Salt, for example, and Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies are actually Tate’s Bake Shop cookies. But as of last week, the supermarket started making an exception to its rule: Bamba, an iconic Israeli puffed corn and peanut snack, is, well, Bamba (or Trader Joe's Bamba peanut snacks, to be exact). The trademark name is right there, in plain sight, and Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that Israeli company Osem is the manufacturer.
Bamba was first produced by Osem in 1964, but it has surprisingly taken until now to enter the peanut-loving American mainstream. There have been a few other ways to get the crunchy morsels stateside thus far — some online marketplaces, the kosher aisles of a few supermarkets, and the occasional suitcase of an Israeli grandmother. But it has never been as easy (or as inexpensive) to purchase as the 99 cent bags now available on Trader Joe’s shelves, and uncharacteristically for the major chain, it wants customers to know that they’re buying the real deal.
“We were aware of the popularity of the product and the fact that it was difficult to find in the U.S.,” says Kenya Friend-Daniel, the public relations director of Trader Joe’s. “We wanted to make this popular snack available to our customers and give them the chance to enjoy it. Part of that is making it recognizable to them.” The familiar name easily identifies Trader Joe’s Bamba as the crunchy snack produced by Osem, but the package design is a Middle East-meets-West amalgamation. The elephant on the Trader Joe’s Bamba bags clearly resembles the elephant that adorns the store’s premium organic peanut butter label. The orange background color is an obvious wink at the original Osem Bamba packaging.
The nutritional label is slightly different from Osem’s Bamba, though. While the four basic ingredients (peanut paste, corn grits, palm oil, and salt) are the same, Trader Joe’s has omitted the nine vitamins listed on the Israeli version of the product. This is probably due to a Food and Drug Administration policy from 1980, stating that it is inappropriate to fortify snack foods (for fear that healthy claims will encourage overeating of junk foods).
For now, Trader Joe’s has positioned its Bamba in the snack aisle, nestled between the tortilla chips and the gluten-free pretzels. But whether it will secure a loyal American fan base remains to be seen. “I think Americans should like it, I just don’t know why it hasn’t [hit the mainstream] quite yet,” says Philadelphia-based chef Michael Solomonov, who has won four James Beard Awards for his Israeli cooking. “If I had access to Bamba all the time, I’d be a much happier human being.”
“I hope it takes off,” Solomonov continues. “It’s just not that sweet — I think people associate that shape, that cheese puff shape, with junk food and Bamba is pretty subtle, right? It’s not terribly sweet. Actually, it’s a pretty well-balanced thing so I don’t know if it’s gonna take off. I guess it depends on how they market it.”
Despite the American love affair with peanuts in both sweet and savory foods, there is a flip side (and a marketing challenge): peanut allergies, particularly among children. A medical study published in February 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which demonstrates that early dietary introduction of peanuts can offer protection from the development of peanut allergies, is changing attitudes about feeding peanuts to youngsters. That study cite snacks such as Bamba as the reason why Israeli children are significantly less likely to develop peanut allergies than American counterparts with similar genetic backgrounds. Some American pediatricians have even begun prescribing Bamba to toddlers.
And so there may be hope for Bamba yet. “From my understanding, it’s been quite popular,” says store manager Phillip, of the Trader Joe’s in New York City’s Union Square. “They’ve been selling pretty good, from my knowledge.” At one of the three Trader Joe’s locations in Washington D.C., however, it’s been less successful so far. “It hasn’t really caught on yet, but I know it will,” says Freddy, a Trader Joe’s customer service representative at the Washington D.C. Foggy Bottom store. “It’s just like all Trader Joe’s products — when they’re first introduced, everyone’s a little timid. But it should be selling well soon.”
Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist based in Philadelphia.
Editor: Greg Morabito