Hemp foods seek high that so far has been largely elusive

Sales of hemp food products surged 44% to $129 million in 2016, but the nascent industry remains saddled with regulatory hurdles and challenges in educating the public.

As consumers look to incorporate more healthy, protein-rich foods into their diets, an answer could be found in a plant whose relative is best known for making people high.

Despite its presence at thousands of U.S. retailers, including Whole Foods, Costco, Wal-Mart and Amazon, hemp — closely related to the marijuana plant but without the reality-altering side effects — has struggled to make significant inroads beyond its core audience of health aficionados. Officials at Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, the largest supplier of hemp products to U.S. retailers, estimates only 1% of the population has ever tried foods with the ingredient.

“Hemp is still being discovered,” Kelly Saunderson, a spokeswoman with Manitoba Harvest, told Food Dive. “Despite the growth that we have seen, which has been significant, I think we are going to see a lot more in the years to come. Our founders joke they didn’t enter the hemp business for an overnight success.”

Hemp is found in more than 25,000 products including automobiles, furniture, paper, building materials and clothing. Sales totaled $688 million in 2016, according to Vote Hemp and the Hemp Business Journalup more than $100 million from the prior year. But it's food, where sales surged 44% to $129 million, that could hold some of the greatest promise despite these eye-popping gains.

The data on hemp foods does not include information from Whole Foods, Costco and other retailers — suggesting the figure “significantly underestimates actual sales,” according to the industry. Today, hemp ingredients — predominantly oils, powders and seeds — are available in a variety of foods ranging from ice cream and salads to milk and even children’s cereal.

“We’re regularly introducing new brands and products into the space. Shoppers are seeking out hemp products more than ever before, thanks to both product innovation and increased promotion of hemp’s nutritional benefits by food brands.”

David Lafferty

Global grocery buyer with Whole Foods

But hemp faces several barriers to widespread adoption. The plant is often associated with marijuana even though it contains much lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient responsible for causing physical changes in a person and altering the individual's perception of reality.

It also has proven difficult to educate a large enough audience about its health benefits — hemp is loaded with healthy fatty acids, protein and is naturally gluten free. These are characteristics popular with Americans who also are looking to improve their diets by ditching sugars, trans fats and artificial flavors and colors.

“It just shows how much more education and awareness is needed,” Saunderson said. “We’re not just selling a product — we are selling a category. Before you can even talk about your products, you have to talk about hemp foods."

Reaching the masses

Hemp food manufacturers and the industry itself spend much of their time not only selling their product but educating consumers about what it is and why they should consume it — key to helping the plant avoid becoming another short-term food fad.

To expand its reach, Manitoba Harvest hands out samples at marathons, festivals and community fairs, while partnering with nutritionists, fitness trainers and dieticians to extol the benefits of the product. And the company has a FAQs page that addresses consumer questions including whether its products are safe for pregnant women and children, and if consuming them will cause a person to get high.

The Hemp Industries Association holds an annual Hemp History Week to educate the public and lawmakers about the benefits of the crop and address misperceptions. Whole Foods, the high-end grocer, is among the supporters of hemp and the annual event.

David Lafferty, a global grocery buyer at the natural and organic chain, said hemp food products became more widely available at Whole Foods around 2010. Today, it offers several hundred items that include hemp as an ingredient, including milk, cereal, breads, chips, pastas, flour and vegetarian burgers.  He declined to discuss sales at the grocer, but noted that non-dairy beverages are the most popular, followed closely by snacks.

“We’re regularly introducing new brands and products into the space,” Lafferty told Food Dive in an email. “Shoppers are seeking out hemp products more than ever before, thanks to both product innovation and increased promotion of hemp’s nutritional benefits by food brands.”

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Food

At Ready Pac Foods, the prepackaged salad maker introduced three single serve options with hemp seeds in 2015 — Hemp Caesar Salad Kit, Jamaican Jerk Style Hemp Caesar Bistro Bowl and its Elevate brand Kale Caesar Salad with Chicken. The Jamaican Jerk variety also contains a side of hemp seed dressing.

Nannette Richardson, the company’s vice president of portfolio marketing, wouldn’t disclose revenue for the salads, but said they “are in the middle of the pack” within its overall portfolio of salads.

“I think there probably is a little bit of a gap in mainstream America about what is hemp and what its role is and why would I want hemp in my product,” Richardson told Food Dive. “Sometimes it might be seen as a tangent ingredient, something that is on the cusp of the products but maybe not all the way into the mainstream.”

She said the company doesn’t actively seek out using hemp, but will include it if it addresses some characteristics like providing a crunch, health benefits or adding fullness to a salad as people look to the product as a meal.

“I don’t focus on, are we going to do more with hemp?” Richardson said. “If hemp solves my problem, I’m not opposed to it. It’s a different way to work on recipe development.”

Hemp's regulatory hurdles

The use of hemp in the U.S. is as old as the country itself. But despite its long history, the crop has faced a series of regulatory roadblocks — though, increasingly, there is evidence the industry is making progress.

Thomas Jefferson, who developed a machine to process hemp in 1815, and George Washington were among the most vocal supporters of the crop. Hemp experienced a resurgence during World War II to help make rope, textiles and other materials. Output waned soon after the conflict ended and by the late 1950s, recorded production had ended, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Hemp was placed on the list of controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1970 because of its association with marijuana. Still, hemp has shown signs of slowly chipping away at this roadblock.

After the DEA tried to ban hemp imports, citing a zero-tolerance standard for THC content, the industry took the government to court and won after a lengthy battle in 2004. Industrial hemp received another boost a decade later when the federal farm bill allowed the crop to be grown for research purposes in states that legalized it. Since the law went into affect, more than 30 states have passed legislation related to the weedy plant.

The hemp industry is optimistic further inroads can be made. While prior attempts have failed, they're hopeful Congress will finally pass legislation to legalize the growing of hemp, opening up the crop to U.S. farmers. Most of the hemp used in foods today comes from Canada, but with more of the plant available domestically and potentially costing less, it could become more financially enticing to food manufacturers in the U.S.

Hemp seeds

Shunned by the food giants

So far, hemp remains largely ignored by the major food companies.

Nestle and Campbell Soup, for example, do not have products containing the ingredient, according to company officials. However, General Mills, the maker of Yoplait yogurt, Nature Valley bars and Cheerios, has a product under its Larabar Organic brand that contains hemp seeds and other superfood ingredients.

While anecdotal evidence has shown the response to the product to be “very positive” so far, according to Kris Patton, a spokeswoman with General Mills, she declined to say whether more foods with hemp are being developed or considered. “We don’t talk about future product innovation,” Patton told Food Dive.

“Give it time and who knows, right? I think Kellogg, General Mills, if there is a consumer demand, and they are listening to consumer trends, you will see the likes of hemp and other specialty seeds start grabbing the attention of the bigger players.”

Kelly Saunderson

Spokeswoman with Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods

Lester Wilson, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, said he expects food manufacturers are gauging consumer interest, federal regulations and its cost to determine whether hemp would be an option for future products. If further studies show hemp in food has even more health benefits than previously known, it could spur additional consumer demand, providing another catalyst for companies debating whether to add the ingredient to their product lines. 

“At the moment, [company use] would be fairly low,” Wilson said. “If more and more things show up that say, 'Hey, this is healthy,' then I think it falls into a different category.”

For now, sales of hemp-related products are largely relegated to smaller companies. But as more players enter the industry — further drawing attention to the nascent market — and new products like hemp-infused coconut water make their way into retail, that could change.

“Give it time and who knows, right?” Saunderson said of bigger players entering the hemp business. “I think Kellogg, General Mills, if there is a consumer demand, and they are listening to consumer trends, you will see the likes of hemp and other specialty seeds start grabbing the attention of the bigger players.”

Filed Under: Grocery Ingredients Corporate Meat / Protein Beverages
Top image credit: Megan Poinski