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For Hemp Lovers, Health is the Ultimate High

Posted on April 21, 2000

By Jack Kohane, Canadian Grocer

It’s Quickly Taking Root On Retail Shelves In An Assortment Of Forms—From Hats To Hummus, Body Lotions To Beer, And Pasta To Pate.

The giggle factor. That’s what commonly comes into play whenever the subject of hemp is raised. Yet now the plant is being touted as the food of the future. What is all this hoopla about hemp?

Proponents defend it as a much-maligned and misunderstood plant. Detractors call it just the latest food and fashion fad. One thing’s certain: it’s one of the fastest-growing (pun intended) and most versatile raw materials going, and it’s quickly taking root on retail shelves in an assortment of forms—from hats to hummus, body lotions to beer, and pasta to pate.

Retailers shouldn’t worry that selling hemp-filled muffins will give customers a psychedelic high, says Kelly Smith, of Hempola, a Port Severn, Ont.-based hemp processor and maker of a line of hemp-based salad dressings. Hemp, or its Latin term, cannabis sativa (meaning ‘useful hemp’), contains only minuscule amounts of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive substance found in much larger amounts in its distant cousin, marijuana. Both substances are members of the mulberry family (among 500 other plant varieties).

That botanical misconception led to its being banned in Canada in 1938, when the government made the growing of either form of cannibis-marijuana or hemp—a criminal act. It was the environmental movement of the 1960s that began building political pressure to legalize the plants. The burgeoning push for hemp’s return prodded the Canadian government to acknowledge the distinction between the various types of cannabis in 1996 and pass legislation in 1998 to once again allow farmers to grow hemp. It fell to Health Canada to decide where to draw the chemical line in the sand between the cannabis cousins. The legal limit is now set at 0.3% THC. Industrial hemp, from which food products are derived, contains precisely that amount or less. Marijuana has as much as 25%.

Since hemp-based food and drink products hit stores about a year ago, curious consumers have been snapping them up in record numbers. Some health food stores, the primary hemp retail outlets, can’t keep up with demand.

“We can’t keep enough of the stuff (hemp) on our shelves,” says Bob Morisseau, regional manager of grocery for Capers in Vancouver, a four-store B.C. Chain specializing in natural foods. Hemp supply was sporadic in the past, he adds, because it was more of a mom-and-pop type of business, not mass marketed. The cost of hemp production remains exceptionally high and that means the finished product is often pricey, i.e., anywhere from about $6 to $10 dollars for a 250-ml bottle of salad dressing. But as supply increases, costs all around should start coming down. In the meantime, it is very much a niche market.

One positive sign: supply is becoming more reliable. In 1998 the Canadian government granted 259 licences to farmers to cultivate 2,500 hectares of hemp. In 1999, 674 licences cultivated 14,200 hectares—a sixfold increase in cultivation in one year.

The new reality led to the launch this February of Ruth’s Hemp Foods, a small Toronto processing company with big ideas about the prospects for hemp. The company introduced the country’s first comprehensive line of foods containing hemp as an integral ingredient. Included in the line are hemp-corn tortilla chips, hemp/flax oil and three flavours of salad dressing(Balsamic Hemp, Far East Hemp and Hemp ‘n’ Honey Mustard). In addition, there are types of pasta (with and without wheat), whole-wheat wraps, pate and hummus, all containing hemp. Ruth Shamai, who heads the company, points out that she expects the novelty of these foods and an interest in nutrition to stimulate initial trial. “However, I’m confident that the flavour and the wonderful texture of these foods will drive repeat sales,” she says.

“I think it’s definitely a market grocery retailers should seriously look at,” say Gail Hewitt, natural food manager for Fortino’s Supermarket Ltd. in Burlington, Ont. “But it’s going to take a lot of education for both retailers and consumers in order to consistently move product. The main things hemp has going for it are its high nutritional value and its superb nutty taste—something like walnuts.”

From a health standpoint, hemp has been called the “king of complete protein.” It’s also high in fibre and certain vitamins and minerals. The hemp seed is about 30% oil, which contains the essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha linolenic acid (omega-3). Hemp seed oil is about 80% polyunsaturated fat, the highest of all vegetable oils.

With such healthy attributes, hemp seed extracts have been investigated in the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune deficiency, depression, and even menstrual problems and acne. A handful of hemp seeds a day is said to supply the recommended total daily intake of protein and essential oils.

Concentrating of hemp’s health benefits is the best way to promote the products, according to Greg Herriott, founder of Hempola. He says retailers should offer pamphlets emphasizing the benefits, display recent articles on hemp, and provide customers with hemp recipes. Retailers can also check out a variety of websites to get information and health findings about hemp.

Though Herriott believes using the cannabis leaf to market the product is not the way to go, others like Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, which has just released a line of hemp skin-care products, put it front and centre—she proudly displays posters of the leaf in store windows. Herriott also suggests playing the homegrown card—many hemp products are Canadian from seed to store—and focusing on its flavour.

Demos are certainly the best way to move any type of new product, and hemp is no exception, says Piers Grimditch, assistant manager for Pusateri’s Fine Foods in Toronto. “People have to taste it smell it, feel it in order to entice them to buy it. I believe once people try hemp-based foods, they’ll like them. There’s potential in this market,” he adds. “But until price goes down, and education goes up, I think that the jury will remain out as to whether consumers will ultimately accept hemp on their supper table.”

Copyright © 2000, Jack Kohane, Canadian Grocer. All rights reserved.