High times for Australia’s hemp-in-food sector

Following the recent approval of low-THC hemp seed products to be used as a food additive by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), hemp seeds may soon be coming to a food manufacturer near you. As Branko Miletic writes, now the product just needs the federal government’s blessing.

The Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association (TFGA) CEO Peter Skillern is definitely someone who could be counted as very much a supporter of hemp in food.

“We’ve been arguing this decision was necessary to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the hemp industry in Tasmania. It’s a giant step forward,” Skillern told The Advocate newspaper.

But it’s not just the Apple Isle where the hemp-in-food movement is gaining support, One of Australia’s most passionate hemp- in-food advocates, Hemp Foods Australia (HFA), has calculated the international market for hemp foods to be currently worth around US$ 1 billion ($1.3 billion) annually.

Speaking on the potential for hemp in the domestic food market, HFA CEO Paul Benhaim said the demand for Australian hemp-based foods will “quadruple in the next few years.”

“This is another positive step in the years long work and investment in achieving legislation for Omega-3 rich hemp as a food in Australia,” he said.

More approval needed

The decision by FSANZ was another step toward encouraging federal ministers to approve of the plant for human consumption – a decision that is due to go before the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation on April 28, when the next Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting is scheduled to take place.

However, not everyone is sure about hemp being approved for food use. NSW Greens upper house MP Jeremy Buckingham has said previous resistance to the legalisation of hemp-derived foods had come from health and police ministers in Victoria and New South Wales who have twice raised concerns about hemp’s interaction with road-side drug testing.

“They’ve said there’s a health risk, they’ve also said it could give false positives in term of mobile drug testing.”

“There’s absolutely no evidence for that anywhere in the world,” Buckingham said.

“All over the world people are rushing into this industry, and Australia is missing out because our politicians are stuck in the 20th century,” he told the ABC.

Benhaim said he and the HFA were confident that the ministers will grant legislation on April 28, which will see hemp foods become legal to purchase from November 2017.

“[This decision] will also contribute significantly toward more sustainable farming in Australia, with the added bonus of creating considerable job opportunities for Australia’s farming industry,” he said.

“Hemp Foods Australia is very excited about seeing the versatility of hemp seeds, hemp oil and hemp protein being used throughout the food and beverage industry.”

The community attitude towards hemp has also changed markedly over time, with the community opinion now declared as being “extremely positive” according to Benhaim.

“This [attitude] has changed significantly since I first became involved in the industry in the early 1990’s.”

“People used to think that hemp may contain drug-like effects. Of course that is not true. You could smoke a field of hemp and all you would do is get a headache – FSANZ has proven this multiple times, and the public also understands this is a healthy superfood.”

Hemp as a superfood

According to Pure Healing Foods, hemp seeds these days are being classified as a “superfood”, one that has been shown to provide a range of health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing inflammation along with a range of weight loss benefits.

From a chemical point of view, hemp seeds are packed with an array of useful fats, proteins, vitamins and trace elements including Omega 3 and Omega 6, Gamma Linolenic

Acid (GLA), amino acids, carotene, phospholipids, potassium sulfur, calcium, copper and Vitamins B1, B2, B6, D, E and chlorophyll.

According to a Rutgers University study, while its fatty acid composition is most often noted, with an oil content ranging from 25-35 per cent, whole hemp seed is additionally comprised of approximately 20-25 per cent protein, 20-30 per cent carbohydrates, and 10-15 per cent fibre, along with an array of trace minerals.

With a complete source of all essential amino and fatty acids, hemp seed oil is a complete nutritional source noted the Rutgers study.

In light of this nutritional data, in the US, while not yet approved for human consumption, hemp seeds are being touted as an additive for stock feed, with Colorado the latest state to draft legislation to approve the seeds for livestock feeding.

Colorado livestock could be eating hemp early next year, thanks to a bill which directs the Colorado Department of Agriculture to study the use of hemp in animal feed.

On a federal level, the US government started allowing farmers to grow hemp under limited circumstances back in 2014.

The United States Food and Drug Authority (USFDA) still classifies hemp the same way as the whole Cannabis sativa plant – even if it has a concentration of no more than 0.3 per cent Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid or THC, the intoxicating substance found in marijuana. This means its passage through the various US state and federal legislatures could still be fraught with a range of hurdles.

But it’s the addition to food for human consumption that excites organisations like the HFA.

“As well as the excellent nutritional properties, hemp has a great flavour and tastes nice on its own,” said Benhaim.

“I expect hemp to be part of every food category you can imagine – from drinks, to ready meals, to dried goods, frozen and more. Hemp truly is a tasty and versatile food that contains the nutritional benefits that ensure the consumer comes back for more each time.”

Export markets set to flower

 It’s not just domestic consumption where hemp as a food additive may find a market-places like North America, Japan, Korea and Europe are the main markets for such products, and HFA said that it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of the Australasian market having the only fully integrated production plan capable of thousands of tonnes of high quality products made in a HACCP environment.

The Australian government is also onboard and is currently helping upgrade the HFA factory at Bangalow in northern New South Wales with a $600,000 grant that is going towards the $1.18 million state-of-the-art processing facility.

However, Benhaim is at pains to stress that HFA will be taking small steps to start with.

“At the moment, we prefer to work at our core business, which is farming, processing and preparing raw materials (hemp seeds, oil, protein and flour) for others to take advantage of and to market themselves,” he said.

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