Australia

Hemp food pioneer hopes legalisation will bring sky-high growth

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
Currently consigned to pet food aisles, or products branded “for external use only”, hemp may soon be sold as a food in Australia, which in turn is on the cusp of a chia-style healthy-food revolution.

That’s according to Paul Benhaim, a hemp foods pioneer, who exactly two years ago was dashed by a decision by a council of state ministers not to approve parts of the cannabis plant for human consumption.

The Council of Australian Governments (Coag) meeting back then to discuss the issue had once again been held up by the thorny issue of roadside police tests, and how prior hemp consumption might skew readings.

Benhaim, founder of Hemp Foods, the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest hemp producer, argued at the time that many countries had already approved hemp as a food ingredient, having encountered no issues with roadside testing.

In April Coag will be asked to debate the matter once again, this time armed with freshly completed government research which Benhaim expects will soothe the concerns of road safety campaigners.

We are expecting them to be extremely positive, based on all the evidence around the world where hemp foods are perfectly legal for consumption—America, Europe, Japan, Korea and many other places, of course​,” Benhaim said. 

The sticking point concerns tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the intoxicating compound in cannabis. Little or no THC is present in hemp, marijuana’s cousin, but it does contain a staggering number of other nutrients, including essential oils and amino acids.

You could eat literally a field of hemp without getting high in any shape or form. But [the police are] more concerned at the possibility that [hemp] may affect their tests​,” he continued, adding that there was no evidence to support this view.

He said the Australian authorities had now completed a study similar to the many done overseas that showed hemp seeds did not affect roadside drug testing.

He said that he regretted how ministers had preferred not to listen to global research studies, but instead had the ear of the police, “who seem to have a strong political influence in this country,​” Benhaim said.

Despite the 2015 Coag decision not to uphold the use of hemp as a food, Benhaim’s Hemp Foods has been producing hemp seeds, protein, oil and flower in ever growing quantities from its northern New South Wales headquarters. 

With little home market—Hemp Foods’ products are mostly visible in pet food sections of supermarkets, where they are not approved for human consumption—it is through exports that has company has flourished. Yet Benhaim has sensed quickly that domestic appetite will grow soon after a positive Coag decision, and last year received federal grants for commissioning a new production line, “to deal with future expected growth in Australia​”.

He and his small number of fellow Australian hemp producers believe their market will open up significantly to manufacturers of other foods who are looking to introduce a health element to them.

If you produce a pasta, a bread or a snack bar, you could quite easily add hemp seeds for a nutritional boost or a nutty flavour for your product​,” Benhaim said. “A regular snack bar could be made with hemp seeds; a pasta could be made out of hemp flour, and the like. We expect more manufacturers will purchase hemp products from us, which we are in a good position to provide​.”

Indeed, Hemp Foods has already provided a number of Australian manufacturers with raw materials so they can develop products that are ready to launch soon after legislation changes. 

As well as selling to manufacturers, Benhaim expects to market branded Hemp Foods products to gyms, juice bars and restaurants. Some awarded restaurants have approached him for hemp seed samples “so they can create menus when hemp foods are legal​”.  

Estimated to be worth $1bn globally, hemp foods is not a tiny market but it’s still a niche one with significant potential. In North America and Asia it is in double digit growth—three digits in some parts of Asia. 

It’s hard to give an exact figure for the potential size of Australia’s market, though Benhaim speculates that it will be in the region of “three-figure millions​”. 

We don’t know where the sky is for our market because people are still being educated. There are some who still think that hemp is connected to a drug, or is some hippie food or health food, and don’t realise it’s actually a staple grain​. 

We’ve seen how the chia industry has grown; we believe that the potential for hemp is significantly larger than that due to its versatility, easy protein digestibility—containing all the amino acids, and of course the wonderful omega-3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids​,” Benhaim added.  

Australia in particular stands to reap some really big rewards. Not only does hemp enrich and purify topsoil while growing quickly and removing taking more carbon dioxide from the air than any other crop, it is also not thirsty. 

Besides Hemp Foods, there are a few very small manufacturers, including some start-ups, in Australia, while a handful of companies rebrand imported hemp products.

If the ban is lifted, consumers will most likely see hemp seeds in supermarkets, petrol stations, juice bars and gyms, as well as being added to many of the regular foods they would normally consume. 

We believe truly that hemp seed, being a whole, plant-based source of protein and a balanced source of essential fatty acids, most people could consume this on a daily basis. Non-dairy ice creams and non-dairy hemp milk will be just some of the products we expect people will be using on a daily basis,​” added Benhaim.

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