Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant that is also extremely nutritious. It’s used to create building materials, automobiles, paper, clothing, jewelry and furniture, but it can also be found in a variety of heath-focused foods. Hemp-based foods are a budding market, with a wide array of offerings: Hemp protein powder, hemp seeds and hemp milk are just a few of the plant-based items you can find available today. And as more people look to incorporate healthy plant foods into their diets, hemp is bound to find its way into more homes across the country, even in spite of the hefty regulations that loom overhead.
When it comes to money, hemp sales reached an impressive $688 million during 2016, a $100 million increase from just 2015. Hemp-based food sales, however, boasted a particularly dramatic boost in sales; a 44 percent increase to $129 million has got more people putting their sights on hemp foods than ever before.
In spite of the clear increases in sales, officials from Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods estimate that only about 1 percent of the US population has experimented with hemp-containing foods. Manitoba Harvest is the largest retailer of hemp-based foods in the country, so they certainly know a thing or two about it.
Kelly Saunderson, a spokesperson from the company, reportedly told Food Dive, “Hemp is still being discovered. 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.” While hemp foods have a strong base of health-oriented consumers, reaching a broader range has been a challenge. Hemp is related to the cannabis plant, and even though hemp doesn’t contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) like marijuana, it often faces the same level of scrutiny.
Saunderson says that more education on hemp is needed to help build awareness of the health benefits offered by hemp products. “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,” she explains. But, regulations also make the conversation difficult; not only have they created a stigma around the plant itself, they have also impeded the industry’s potential for growth.
The use of hemp for a variety of industrial purposes, such as making rope, was once widespread. Some of America’s most cherished historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were huge proponents of the plant’s many uses and benefits. However, the DEA put hemp on the controlled substances list during the 1970s due to its association with cannabis — another substance wrongfully restricted by the government agency.
In 2004, the hemp industry took the federal government to court over the DEA’s attempt at banning hemp imports — and in a shocking twist, the industry actually won. Since then, a federal farm bill allowed the crop to be grown for “research purposes” in states where it had been legalized. Now, more than 30 states have passed bills regarding the hemp plant.
While it may take a few more years, members of the hemp industry are hopeful that one day, growing hemp will become legal in the United States. If this were to happen, we could see a huge boon in the hemp industry as it would become far more accessible than it is today. One might also surmise that legalization could also help the health benefits of hemp to be more readily accepted by the masses.
What are the health benefits of hemp?
Hemp seeds are extremely nutritious and are a great source of healthy fat and protein. They are loaded with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, for example. And as Authority Nutrition explains, hemp seeds contain a higher percentage of protein (25 percent of total calories) than other popular seeds-of-the-moment, like chia seeds or flax seeds. Hemp seeds also contain a wide variety of micronutrients, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and zinc.
Not only is hemp a great source of protein, it is one of the few complete plant-based proteins. This means it contains all of the essential amino acids. The protein from hemp seeds is also easily absorbed due to its highly digestible nature. Whole hemp seeds are also a great source of fiber, both insoluble and soluble.
Overall, hemp seeds and foods that contain them can provide a sizable amount of nutrition: Healthy fats, micronutrients, protein and fiber.
It’s no surprise that the food industry is slowly becoming aware of these health and nutritional benefits, but regulatory obstacles still stand in the way.