Hemp: hippy haven or healthy option? Clare Harman investigates the scope and potential of the market for hemp foods.

Offered a sprinkle of toasted hemp seeds as a garnish on her Caesar salad, my mother pauses: "Is that legal, dear?" There can be little doubt that cannabis has given the seed a bad name in respectable circles but it appears the time is ripe for a veritable hemp renaissance.

In many places, hemp still faces an uphill legislative battle for acceptance, but during the last ten years many countries and US states have been taking steps to re-establish the commercial hemp industry. Gradually, the seemingly intrinsic links between the food source and the hallucinogenic marijuana, actually largely forged by legislators during the 1930s, are being broken down. The recent publication of a comprehensive book on the subject by Paul Benhaim, acronymically named after its hero "HEMP: Healthy Eating Made Possible," is helping to remind consumers of the historic uses of hemp, largely wholesome and nutritious. Add this consumer desire for healthy diets to an environmentally sound harvest, and a sustainable super crop, and the hemp food industry is on a high. Figuratively, at least.

A healthy choice


"Q: Are hemp foods healthy?
A: "Hemp seed and its many by-products are some of the most nutritional superfoods on earth" Benhaim"

Hemp seed has a long history of use in foods throughout the world, and the scope of hemp as a food ingredient is broad. Hemp seeds, which are in fact nuts, are a rich source of fatty acid oils. These are believed by nutritionists to boost the human immune system and prevent heart disease. They also contain 25% protein, which is easier to digest than the protein in soy oil, because it more closely resembles the protein of the human body. Benhaim tells us that in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts hemp is referred to as "bhanga indracana," meaning the food of the Gods and Ananada (spring of life), and it is also considered an essential source of nutrition by modern authorities: in cases of famine, many governments use hemp as the first emergency food. Indeed, the US government confirmed the value of hemp by Executive Order, as the President designated hemp as a strategic crop of importance to national security (EO 12919, June 3 1994, 59 Fed. Reg. 29525).

Hemp and marijuana not synonymous

As a young ascetic monk, it is believed that Buddha ate one hempseed every day during the three years that led to his enlightenment. Experts stress however that it would have been impossible for that spiritual state to be attributable to any psychoactive ingredient, because the hemp plant contains negligible levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp and marijuana are both derived from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, but the levels of the psychoactive ingredient they contain differ greatly. THC is present in marijuana by between one and ten per cent. In order to be classified as hemp by the standards of the EEC however, levels of THC must fall below 0.3%. "A smoker of hemp would not get 'high' no matter how much was smoked," explained Sarah Yearsley, marketing manager of MotherHemp, a company established in the UK in February 1998.

Benhaim's apologia for the hemp plant details how the seed acquired its less respectable connotations via the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which virtually destroyed the (North) American hemp industry because it was impossible to quantify the varying levels of THC, an all-important x-factor identified in 1974. Now however, the consumption of hemp products will not mean a person tests positive for THC in a drug-screening check, a reassurance given in a research project conducted by Californian company Leson Consulting. Nevertheless, the comprehensive collection of recipes in Benhaim's book range from the conventional Basic Wholemeal loaf or Onion Soup to the more radical smoothies, with names like Hemp Magic and Cosmic Bliss Peach. In many ways it does seem that the association between hemp and cannabis in the modern mind is deeply entrenched. Can hemp as an ingredient therefore ever move back into the mainstream?

Such a risqué allegiance can be a selling point for hemp, of course. There is a very profitable market for alternative food products, with certain consumers attracted by the "groovy" association with cannabis, often hyped by the packaging designs on hemp products. Similarly, Oxford-based marijuana fanzine The Bush Telegraph reviews Hemp Cnusper Chocolate saying: "It was creamy, smooth and tasty, sure, but it was almost impossible to skin up with." (Volume 2, Issue 1). Arthur Hanks, a Canadian expert on the subject, explained to just-food.com that, "consumers are attracted to hemp on a novelty basis, but stay with it because hemp seeds taste good." However, scope for wide-scale future growth with this strategy is limited, and problems with going mainstream are associated as closely with cost as with image.

Hemp products are often more expensive than their non-hemp equivalents, something that will change as production increases and costs are reduced. Yearsley predicts that hemp will become more popular and if agricultural subsidies are offered the price of hemp foods will fall. Balancing image and cost therefore is a delicate issue, for the product cannot simultaneously rely on its somewhat risqué appeal to the alternative market and its healthy, historically wholesome image to attract a mass following and allow costs to drop. However, many see the multi-purpose nature of hemp as a selling point in its own right and producers often focus on the nutritional or environmental benefits without mentioning cannabis at all.

Ideal crop for environmentalists

For environmentalists, or farmers hoping to ride the organic wave, hemp is an ideal crop. Fast growing, hemp requires minimal pesticides or agricultural chemicals and is naturally pest-resistant. It will take root in practically any climate, and unusually returns minerals to the soil as it grows. Cheap and remarkably easy to farm, hemp is also regarded by many as a solution for deforestation and is virtually unique as a crop that is not damaged by UV-B light, therefore resistant to the depletion of the ozone layer. The economic potential in the plant's numerous applications, aside from its edible seeds, is beginning to interest groups from diverse industries. "One day we will be able to build and furnish a house with hemp products," assured Yearsley.

Selling the seed: specific dietary needs?


"Q: Can I get high on it? A: "You would have to smoke at least a field of this stuff to even get a smile." Mr Scott - quoted on the Hemp Foods Industry Association website. "
In February 1998, Shaun Crew founded Hemp Oil Canada, prompted by the unexpressed potential in the hemp industry. "From the start, we experienced a lot of interest in both the hemp food and hemp body care products we produce. It is our intention to take hemp food and body care products from being relegated to niche markets to mainstream distribution," he explained to just-food.com. Crucial to achieving this is an understanding of how alternative markets become mainstream choices.

Hemp is a useful substitute ingredient for people with specific dietary needs, and is set to capitalise upon the functional foods arena. "It is estimated that the market for wheat intolerance is between 6-15 million in the UK today and the figures for dairy and lactose intolerance is 5.5million. Gluten intolerance is also rising," Yearsley explained to just-food.com. While specialty foods are essentially another alternative market, current trends mean that they are "now moving away from the dusty bottom shelves of the whole food stores to the higher shelves of the supermarkets, alongside organics," and the opportunities for hemp are expanding with them. Some might say that hemp has the potential to go mainstream merely by riding the trend for organic produce.

Increasing product range?

Furthermore, the expansion of the industry into the mainstream is being helped by organisations such as the UK-based Hemp Food Industries Association (HFIA), which is involved in promoting hemp as a food ingredient and offering a form of certification. This quality standardisation helps to promote the trust of a mainstream market. Focusing on certain products helps detract from the more risqué image issue as well, prepping the ingredient for a mainstream consumer. The safety of the staple bread was given a twist by the Sunnyvale Bakery in Buckinghamshire, which recently launched its "Hemp wheat sprouted bread and Hemp gluten free corn bread [both] 100% ORGANIC" (note the stress on the organic, an increasingly popular notion for the mainstream). Elsewhere hemp is becoming more convenient to eat, with prepared foods such as ice-cream and even hemp nut burgers (from HempHotel.com) attracting a more mainstream clientele.


In the light of repeated food scares, food safety and a healthy diet are two of the primary factors dominating consumer food choice. Offer an environmentally friendly, non-GM crop, prove its nutritious content and versatility in recipes and it seems likely it will garner attention from consumers. Provide that ingredient in convenient packages as a healthy alternative to existing products and bring the price down, and it is almost guaranteed to prove popular.. Hippy haven or staple nutrition, this time round it looks like hemp is here to stay.

Relevant Links:
Hemp Food Association: http://www.hempfood.com
Mother Hemp food products: http://shop.motherhemp.com/acatalog/food.php3