The good brother: hemp-based foods

14 November 2018



Hemp food products are widely recognised for their nutritional benefits. However, recent years have seen much confusion over the legality of hemp and its derivatives. Ingredient Insight speaks to Anndrea Hermann, the president emeritus of the Hemp Industries Association, to shed further light on the uses for hemp in our diet, the benefits it can and offer how specialist manufacturers are widening the product range.


Hemp-based foods are becoming increasingly popular. According to a report by market research firm Technavio, hemp foods are expected to grow by 24% a year until 2022, with hempseed-based foods accounting for over 80% of sales. The key drivers, stipulates the report, are the growing vegan population and increasing incidence of coeliac disease.

A different piece of research, by SPINS, found that the US hemp foods retail market reached $43.6 million in the year up to February 2018. This was a rise of 4.9% on the previous year. However, the figure might be on the low side as it covers only a limited selection of outlets (it excludes online channels and key retailers, such as Whole Foods). With a high proportion of hemp food sales occurring online, it is hard to gauge what the true total might be.

“There hasn’t been a year in the past seven where there hasn’t been double digit growth, and I don’t believe 2017 was any exception,” Eric Steenstra, the president of VoteHemp, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Indeed, according to VoteHemp estimates, hemp-based food sales hit at least $129.3 million in 2016, or 19% of the overall hemp products market. Food products were the third-biggest category, just behind personal-care products and the fast-emerging category of hemp CBD.

According to Anndrea Hermann, the president emeritus of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), hempbased foods make up a broad and varied market.

“The most common hempseed grain food products are hulled hempseed – known as hemp hearts – hempseed oil and hemp protein powder,” she says. “Our members produce a range of products, from stand-alone ingredients, to mixes, pasta and analogue meat alternatives, and those members range from contractors working directly with the farmer, to contract grain production, to manufacturers of the ingredients and retail brands.”

To clarify, hempseeds are the seeds of the industrial hemp plant. Technically nuts, not seeds, they have a mild, nutty flavour and can be consumed cooked or raw. The HIA says that hemp hearts are “by far the most popular and well-liked hemp food”, and many health and nutrition websites would concur.

One blogger, Carla Birnberg, writes, “There are a lot of foods out there that claim to be superfoods, and for good reason. But in my opinion, hemp hearts are the greatest superfood of them all.” Another website, Chatelaine, gives “four reasons to fall in love with hemp hearts”, and there is much talk of them as the next ‘it’ item for plantbased foods.

Of course, online hype is easy to dismiss; but hempseed arguably has the goods to back it up. As Hermann explains, hemp foods are something of a nutritional powerhouse.

High on health

“Hempseed contains all the essential amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to maintain a healthy life and is an ideal source of protein, which is highly digestible,” she says. “They have a perfect 3:1 ratio of omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 linolenic acid, and contain gamma-linolenic acid, which is beneficial for heart health. Hempseed is a great source of vitamin E, and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulphur, calcium, iron and zinc.”

The most common hempseed grain food products are hulled hempseed – known as hemp hearts – hempseed oil and hempseed protein powder.

They are free from many of the allergens and other nasties that might deter a health-conscious consumer. For instance, they are naturally gluten-free, making them suitable for people with coeliac disease. (However, it’s important to check the label, as, like other grains and seeds, they may be subject to cross-contamination in the factory.)

Hempseed is particularly popular with vegans as a high-quality protein source. Not only does it contain up to 35% protein, but, unusually for a plant protein, it includes all nine essential amino acids. It is particularly rich in arginine and L-tyrosine, compensating for relatively low quantities of lysine and leucine.

Some manufacturers are anxious to improve the amino acid profile further. Some create plant protein blends, combining hemp and pea protein (the latter is rich in lysine). It is thought that hemp-based protein powders may be a category to watch in future.

Hempseed is lauded for its balance of essential fatty acids, up to a quarter of which are alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 that is often lacking in the Western diet. According to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Seville, eating hemp seed may have positive effects on blood pressure and cholesterol, with the alpha-linolenic acid exerting “beneficial physiological effects on the prevention of coronary heart disease and cancer”.

It seems, then, that hempseed and its derivatives have strong potential as a health food. However, more research is needed to further explore its nutritional profile and deepen the evidence base.

“Hemp needs to become a mainstream product much like flaxseed,” says Hermann. “Hemp needs to acquire generally recognised as safe (GRAS) status in the US.

“It needs more peer-reviewed research so that health claims can be made, such as that it helps maintain heart health or reduces cholesterol.”

So why has hemp not yet acquired that GRAS status? It may seem like a surprising oversight, given that hemp seed is clearly natural and nutrient dense.

The answer, of course, lies in hemp’s relationship with marijuana. Hemp and its controversial cousin are derived from the cannabis sativa plant, albeit different strains. While marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive compound that produces the feeling of being ‘high’, hemp contains this compound only in trace quantities.

Confusion still abounds – although all hempseed-grain-based foods are legal in the US, products have faced a stigma.

Arguably the low point for hemp food producers came in 2001, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published a rule banning hempseed and hemp oil food products that contained ‘any amount’ of THC.

It was not until 2004, when the HIA successfully contested this ruling, that the sales of hemp foods became properly protected.

“On 6 February 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision in favor of the HIA,” explains Hermann. “Judge Betty Fletcher wrote, ‘The DEA cannot regulate naturally occurring THC not contained within or derived from marijuana, meaning nonpsychoactive hemp is not included in Schedule I. The DEA has no authority to regulate drugs that are not scheduled, and it has not followed procedures required to schedule a substance. The DEA’s definition of THC contravenes the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in the Controlled Substances Act and cannot be upheld.’”

Since then, says Hermann, regulatory issues have not been an issue for standard hemp foods (CBD oils are a different story); however, she thinks the industry has yet to reach its full potential.

“We just need to see the products in more common uses, and in products that are not marketed solely on hemp, but where hemp is just one of the ingredients,” she says. Currently, the outcome of the Hemp Farming Act 2018 is being awaited, which, if passed, would end decades of prohibition and enable farmers in the US to cultivate hemp commercially. This would undoubtedly give a boost to the hemp industry and remove some of the current barriers to market entry.

Colleen Keahey Lanier, HIA’s executive director, said, “The removal of industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act is critical to the advancement of hundreds of farmers and stakeholders that the HIA represents. Our association supports state chapters whose committed leaders have been working hard to support favourable state legislation to develop agricultural pilot programmes for hemp farming and domestic whole plant products since 2014.”

The end of prohibition

Whether or not the proposed law is successful, it seems clear that the hemp industry has scope to flourish in the future. Already, two Canadian hemp companies, Manitoba Harvest and its subsidiary Hemp Oil Canada, have applied for a GRAS designation with FDA. The move, described as a ‘milestone for the entire hemp industry’, could make life much easier for hemp food innovators and those in the hemp ingredients trade.

Ultimately, hemp could move beyond the realm of speciality food companies, and become a go-to ingredient for the mainstream. The potential is considerable, given consumer demand for natural and nutritious products.

In the meantime, some of the fastestgrowing markets for hemp foods include pet food and CBD-based products.

“Interest in CBD-based products is growing via word of mouth. Customers see the benefits and share that with loved ones,” says Hermann.

In the future, she hopes that hemp will become a key ingredient in all kinds of foodstuffs. This, however, may require a change in attitude.

“It is important for all countries to focus on hemp as a safe, delicious food product, and that it is grown and manufactured in systems that are traceable,” she says.

Hempseed-based products are free from many common allergens and naturally gluten-free.
CBD-based foodstuffs are often delicious, beneficial and ultimately safe.


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