Ever since hemp cultivation became legal in the latest Farm Bill, manufacturers have been mumbling about the possibility of including CBD, which is derived from the plant, in future products.
On Thursday, Ben & Jerry's was the first to speak clearly and definitively on the matter. Yes, the brand will create CBD-infused frozen treats once there are regulations in place from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Unilever-owned brand's CEO Matthew McCarthy said in a written statement that what moved this decision was consumer desire for the nonpsychoactive substance to be added to ice cream. CBD has anti-inflammatory properties and is said to aid in relaxation. Chris Rivard, the Ben & Jerry's flavor guru in charge of the CBD project, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Food Dive.
"We are an innovation trend-driven company as well," Rivard said. "It's something that we're not afraid to say that we're looking at, and ... we want to use this hopefully opportunity [so] that other companies can ... do similar announcements and then, you know, really create some momentum behind this."
It makes perfect sense that Ben & Jerry's, which is known both for its strong corporate values and premium flavors — especially those celebrating hippie culture such as Cherry Garcia, Half Baked and Phish Food — is the first big food brand to get out front and commit to eventual CBD-infused products. Rivard said there have been internal discussions about it for years. Last year, as CBD legalization got closer to becoming a reality, the brand started very seriously looking at how to get the substance into ice cream in a "fun and unique" way.
The company announced its intentions in a blog post on Thursday. Rivard said it was important to get the pledge out there before Friday's FDA public hearing discussing regulations for CBD so the Ben & Jerry's plans can be part of the wider discussion. He also said the brand wanted to let its fans know it is working on CBD products as soon as it made sense. An announcement now, he said, gives consumers plenty of time to give their input both to Ben & Jerry's — and, as the blog post mentions, to the FDA.
Everything but the ...
Even though Ben & Jerry's made its big CBD announcement, all of the other details are up in the air. Rivard said the company hasn't decided on the types of flavors and products for CBD, nor has it figured out where consumers will be able to find those flavors — scoop shops, grocery store freezers or both.
"There's still a lot of work to be done on our side," he said.
So far, much of the planning has been discussions with people in the hemp and CBD industry. Rivard said the company needs to figure out supply, chemistry, how much of it is needed to be effective and how to work with CBD and hemp's natural attributes like smell, taste and color. Rivard said he knows CBD is a challenging substance with which to work. The company hasn't made any prototypes yet, but that will be coming.
"It's something that we're not afraid to say that we're looking at, and ... we want to use this hopefully opportunity [so] that other companies can ... do similar announcements and then, you know, really create some momentum behind this."
Flavor guru, Ben & Jerry's
One thing that he is already sure about is that the hemp that is grown for the CBD fits into the brand's shared prosperity model, like its brownies from a bakery with an open-door hiring policy and its cookie dough from a supplier that gives refugees a place to work. According to the press release announcing the plans, the company is looking at sustainably sourced hemp grown in Vermont, where the brand is based.
Nothing will be launching until there are full federal regulations governing CBD, even though some individual states may allow food products sooner, Rivard said. As far as Ben & Jerry's is concerned, any food or beverage product containing CBD is illegal and not fit for consumption. There hasn't been much research into CBD in food and drink, and the substance does not have generally recognized as safe status from the FDA — meaning it's not federally approved as an ingredient.
"For us, it's really important that FDA have backing behind it," Rivard said. "From a safety perspective, from ... a regulatory perspective, it's something that we're not willing to go against. There's a reason why FDA is in place, and we feel it's important to follow those regulations."
Give them something to talk about
CBD has been hailed as the next big ingredient in food and drink. While many small companies founded for the express purpose of making cannabis-infused food have been working on items with the substance, Big Food has been weighing the ingredient from a distance. The closest another established manufacturer has come to embracing CBD was Mondelez CEO Dirk Van de Put telling CNBC this month that the company was considering adding it to snacks.
Although the Ben & Jerry's announcement didn't come from the brand's corporate parent Unilever, Rivard said the larger company was fully aware of the plans and supportive of the planned rollout. The CPG titan has more than 1,000 brands worldwide. Ben & Jerry's operates with quite a bit of autonomy under that corporate umbrella, with its own board to advise innovations and corporate responsibility issues.
Rivard and Ben & Jerry's spokesperson Lindsay Bumps said out of all of the brands Unilever has in the United States, the Vermont ice cream company is in the best position to get into CBD.
"It definitely aligns with what we represent and sort of the culture of our fans, and ... that fun, indulgent, quirky, premium type of product," Rivard said.
With this announcement from Ben & Jerry's and official federal government-level discussion starting on CBD, Rivard guessed that more CPG companies will come forward soon with definitive commitments to future products with the substance. Nobody from Ben & Jerry's or Unilever — or anyone from Big Food, for that matter — is on the agenda to speak at the hearing. But that doesn't mean that conversations won't get started.
"I would welcome it and hope for it," Rivard said. "I think, again, the more conversation we can have around it, the more visibility that the consumers have around it, other industry officials [consider it] ... the more we can understand it and ... find an interesting and creative way to deliver it."