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What’s new in hemp-based food?

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Food ingredients from hemp were already popular in Europe long before heightened interest in CBD brought hemp into the limelight – and hemp remains a promising ingredient source for a broad cross section of the food industry.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) requires novel foods approval for hemp flowers, leaves and all extracts containing cannabinoids (such as CBD oil), but products from hemp seeds and seed oils are exempt. Their use is widespread in foods, with companies using hemp ingredients in non-dairy milk alternatives, breakfast cereals and bars, bread, snacks, pasta, and even as an alternative to tofu. Hemp seed contains all of the essential amino acids, meaning it has gained attention from the sports nutrition sector as well, as a vegan, soy-free protein source.

Europe is the world’s largest hemp-growing region, after many EU member states lifted a ban on growing it in the 1990s. Now, among its many other uses, manufacturers are exploring its potential as a plant-based meat alternative. In December, Czech hemp grower Hempoint joined with Roots (Sustainable Agricultural Technologies Ltd) of Israel to work together on such products.

Hana Gabrielova, CEO of Hempoint, explained that hemp compares well to other animal and plant protein sources, from an agricultural perspective (it is a good organic companion plant that needs no herbicides), a processing perspective (no solvents or additives are required to extract hemp protein), and nutritionally.

“Compared to whey protein, hemp is rich in fibre and unsaturated fats as well as minerals and antioxidants, which makes it highly nutrient dense,” she said. “It’s suitable also for lactose intolerant people, so hemp protein is generally more easily digested.” 

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Impact of the CBD boom

Heightened interest in CBD over the past few years has certainly raised awareness of hemp, but Gabrielova said this has brought both positives and negatives for the industry.

“The CBD boom created awareness among people – they are not afraid to use it anymore because they experience benefits for themselves,” she said, adding that it had helped people understand that hemp is a plant with no psychotropic effects.

However, she said it became clear that there was still considerable confusion about how hemp should be regulated, whether as an industrial crop, a pharmaceutical substance – or as “a dangerous drug”.

“CBD hype opened the problematic regulatory field of the hemp industry,” she said. “… [It] showed us that it is important to work on standards and self-regulation and not wait for the regulators. Hemp is too new a topic for them to understand the hemp industry needs. It is the responsibility of the industry to do it.”

Building capacity

In addition, the sudden popularity of hemp-derived products, including CBD, led to overproduction – and currently the industry lacks the infrastructure to process very large quantities.

According to Gabrielova, possible uses for hemp-derived products are “beyond our imagination”, but she said increased processing capacity was necessary to realise hemp’s full potential.

“It will not happen overnight…We need to build infrastructure which will be able process such huge quantities, but step by step I believe that we can get there in 10 years,” she said.

In the meantime, manufacturers are exploring many uses for hemp in food, and Gabrielova suggests its greatest potential could be in foods for medical purposes, in which isolated proteins from hemp could be of particularly high value for those with specific nutritional needs.

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