Pot of gold: Big Food could cash in on cannabis-infused edibles market
With recreational cannabis use legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, big companies are increasingly interested in getting a piece of the market — particularly in cannabis-infused foods known as edibles, Mother Jones reports.
David Downs, cannabis news editor for GreenState, an online culture magazine run by the San Francisco Chronicle, told Mother Jones that edibles are producing revenue in the hundreds of millions in places where marijuana use is legalized. The Specialty Food Association called edibles one of the top 10 trends of 2018.
Because cannabis is easily added to foods and beverages, changes are coming as the market expands and more consumers prefer to eat it rather than smoke it, Downs said. He predicts that big companies will introduce more products and that the edibles market will start to resemble the alcohol market. He also believes an "extinction-level event" for small edibles businesses will take place as they struggle against red tape and steep real estate and operating costs.
As the legalization of recreational marijuana continues — at least 12 states are considering legalizing the substance this year — the impact of edibles on the food and beverage industry will be substantial. Once consumers are granted legal access, it may not be long before they're able to shop for cannabis-infused chips and cookies, or pick up a pack of their favorite THC-based beverage.
The U.S. edibles market has exploded in the past few years, with California consumers spending more than $180 million on cannabis-infused foods and beverages in 2016, according to Arcview Market Research data reported by Forbes. That was 10% of the state's total sales of cannabis that year. And, in Colorado, BDS Analytics reported that edible sales jumped 67% between February 2016 and February 2017.
Medium-sized and smaller companies producing edibles abound, but they are starting to fade away as state regulatory regimes clamp down on their ability to afford licensing and taxes, and they aren't able to finance the commercial space to scale up. Downs wrote about the problem last week on GreenState:
"According to industry consultant Sean Donahoe, California's cannabis industry is on track to follow Colorado and the rest of mainstream American business — where the forces of regulation and consolidation leave the bulk of commercial activity in the hands of the few," he noted.
As more home-grown edible businesses get snuffed out, it opens the door to big food and beverage companies looking for growth. However, regulatory obstacles remain as states work to prevent health and safety problems — such as children mistaking edibles for regular candy and accidentally getting high — and they enhance efforts to standardize doses and make sure the raw product is free from pesticides or other chemicals.
As Downs told Mother Jones, smoking has fallen out of favor with some consumers and they are more interested in ingesting cannabis through edibles than in lighting up. Edibles are also less conspicuous and easier to consume, which is another factor playing into their popularity.
Premium edibles appeal to millennial consumers and others who want to partake with friends at a party or in their own homes. One example is Oregon's Leif Goods, which produces five gourmet chocolate bars using organic, fair-trade chocolate, are vegan-certified and contain sun-grown, full-extract cannabis oil. The amount of oil varies per bar and is meant to deliver an "overall foodie experience as opposed to just getting high," according to the company.
Keith Villa, the former head brewmaster of Blue Moon, also plans to launch a line of cannabis-infused, nonalcoholic craft beverages. While other brands like Lagunitas use marijuana to flavor their beer, Villa's CERIA Beverages will actually formulate its light, regular and full-bodied beers with THC, the psychoactive chemical in the marijuana plant that creates the high.
The entry of alcohol brands into the marijuana market seems to be a logical transition — both categories are aimed at adults and are already associated with a mature form of recreation. Major snack and dessert companies may have a tougher time breaking into the space since many create products for children and families and rolling out a marijuana-based product could change their image.