Functional food opportunity: Aussie researchers embark on hemp nutritional quality project to boost market

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar (right), a world expert in plant breeding and genetics of Southern Cross University, with Andrew Kavasilas, CEO of industry partner Kavasil Pty Ltd.
Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar (right), a world expert in plant breeding and genetics of Southern Cross University, with Andrew Kavasilas, CEO of industry partner Kavasil Pty Ltd.

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Australian researchers have been awarded $530,543 to develop hemp varieties of high nutritional value that are best-suited to local conditions, in order to boost opportunities across functional foods and nutraceuticals.

Southern Cross University has received the funding for its ‘New crop on the block: Genetic control of hempseed nutritional quality’ from the Australian Research Council.

Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar, a world expert in plant breeding and genetics, will lead the project. His team will work in collaboration with industry partner Kavasil Pty Ltd, a regional hemp research and development (R&D) and consulting company based at Nimbin in the NSW Northern Rivers.

While hempseed, which is rich in polyunsaturated oils and high-quality protein, is coming to the fore as a functional food crop globally, very little is known about the genetic control of oil and protein contents and composition, which are crucial characteristics for the optimisation of hempseed productivity and quality for the Australian industry.

"The project will involve characterising hemp germplasm for seed quality traits, including seed size and nutritional composition,” Associate Professor ​Kretzschmar said.

“Importantly, we will be linking genotypes (genetic makeup) to phenotypes (visual or chemical characteristics/traits) through quantitative genetic approaches. This will help improve hempseed varieties for Australian requirements into the future.”

A unique genetic resource of 120 diverse hemp accessions (cultivars), consisting of globally sourced germplasm and accessions provided by Kavasil, will be used to define the genetics underpinning nutritional variation and associated genotype-by-environment interactions.

This fundamental knowledge will lay the foundation for targeted breeding and best management practice for the benefit of farmers, the hemp industry and health-conscious consumers.

The project will be conducted in the Southern Cross Plant Science laboratories and field sites at the University’s Lismore campus.

Despite years of over-regulation and stigmatisation, Associate Professor Kretzschmar said hemp was an ideal crop for Australia.

"Hemp has massive potential as a food and medicinal crop. The seeds are a rich source of essential Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids with similar health benefits as fish oil, except they are plant-based vegan and come without the odour issues and ethical concerns associated with animal sourced products,”​ he said.

“Hempseeds also contain high amounts of essential amino acids, important for a balanced diet. Like soy, hemp can be used as protein crop. Like canola, it can be used as an oil crop. In addition, its flowers are rich in nutraceutical and medical compounds.

“Hemp’s versatility means it is the swiss army knife of crops."

Industry partnership

Kavasil Pty Ltd focuses on increasing the value of hemp products by marketing high-value hempseed as a functional food; advising and changing policy in respect to hemp foods for human consumption (through Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)); and supporting R&D into hemp cultivation, hemp variety improvement, hemp nutritional value and hempseed processing.

Southern Cross University now houses, maintains and works with the Kavasil hemp germplasm collection which is critical to this project.

Andrew Kavasilas is the founder and chief executive officer of Kavasil Pty Ltd. During his 20 years-plus in the hemp industry he has collaborated with Southern Cross University on several hemp and cannabis research projects and has been pivotal in shaping the regulatory landscape and driving the application approval and subsequent introduction of hemp seed foods for human consumption in Australia.

He said: “One of my key objectives is to develop markets and supply chains for ‘functional hemp foods’ with nutritional and health benefits.

“This can be achieved through increased domestic production of ‘clean and green’ premium products. One of the keys to sourcing, processing and marketing Australian-grown hemp products is the development of locally adapted hemp cultivars that yield large seeds and high concentrations of ‘functional’ components, for example fatty acids, proteins and other complex compounds."

“Resolving genetic contribution as well as genotype x environment interactions for these key functional components in the cannabis plant will be critical for our future breeding programs and expansion plans,” ​he added.

“This clearly aligns with our strategic objective for developing appropriate genetics, sourcing, processing and marketing increasing volumes of high-value Australian-grown hemp products.”

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