by Vicky Uhland
Baristas at the Dragonfly Coffee House in Portland, Ore., are fluent in the language of "ccino": cappuccino, mochaccino, frappuccino—whatever milk-and-coffee concoction their customers come up with, chances are Dragonfly's baristas can make it. But last year, these java jockeys had to add a new word to their lexicon: hempuccino.
That's when Living Harvest debuted Hempmilk, an aseptic beverage made from hempseed nuts. The milk is such a popular alternative to nondairy beverages like soymilk and rice and almond milks that it has spawned its own "ccino" drink in coffee shops in the Pacific Northwest, according to Christina Volgyesi, president of the Portland, Ore.-based company.
Hempmilk's success—from April 2007 to April 2008 it was the fastest-growing nondairy aseptic beverage in the U.S., according to market research firm SPINS—is indicative of the entire hemp-food category. In natural and mass-market food stores, sales of hemp foods increased almost 56 percent between 2006 and 2007, to a total of $9.7 million, according to SPINS.
Manufacturers attribute the growing hemp-food market to four factors: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's cease fire four years ago in the war on hemp, the plant's strong nutritional profile, the ease of growing hemp sustainably and organically, and concerns about the reigning nondairy beverage, soymilk.
"The hemp industry is where the soy industry was 20 to 25 years ago," says Mike Fata, president and co-founder of Manitoba Harvest, a Canadian company that makes a variety of hemp-food products. "With soy getting a majorly bad rap because of its [genetic modification], phytoestrogens and allergenic properties, hemp is primed to take over. Hemp is where the natural foods industry is going."
Dude, it won't get you high
"The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and the first American flag was made of hemp," says Living Harvest CEO Hans Fastre. "Hemp has been a part of our culture for a long, long time until some misguided energy made it a forbidden product."
The U.S. war on hemp is longstanding. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 to prohibit the use of marijuana, but the law had so much red tape that the production of marijuana's cousin, hemp, became almost impossible. By the 1950s, hemp cultivation in the U.S. had gone up in smoke.
Hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species, Cannabis sativa. According to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, hemp is bred to maximize its fiber, seeds and oil, while marijuana is bred to maximize its THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets people high. The DEA classifies all varieties of Cannabis sativa as marijuana, even though studies have found that hemp plants contain less than 1 percent THC compared to marijuana's 3 percent to 20 percent. In a report published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, U.S. military lab tests on a variety of hemp foods and cosmetics found that a large majority of the products contained no THC, and those that did have THC were below levels that would cause failed drug tests.
Nevertheless, the DEA spent decades enforcing its "no hemp" policy until 2004, when the Hemp Industries Association won a lawsuit that blocks the DEA from banning hemp products in the U.S. Hemp cultivation is still forbidden, although North Dakota and Vermont recently passed laws to allow hemp farming. Whether the federal government will allow the states to enact those laws remains to be seen.
For now, most U.S. hemp-food manufacturers get their hemp from Canada where it's often cultivated organically and sustainably. Hemp plants have a short growing season, low water needs and a long taproot, which helps prevent soil erosion. The plants are self-seeding and contain natural insect repellents, making them less likely to need pesticides.
"With the whole movement for sustainability, people are starting to say, ‘Hey, why didn't we look at hemp earlier?' " says Fastre of Living Harvest.
The ultimate superfood?
Novato, Calif.-based Navitas Naturals, which specializes in products made from superfoods ranging from açai to yacon, recently debuted Hemp Power, a powder made from organic, raw hemp seeds. Hemp more than holds its own among Navitas' nutraceutical powerhouses, says company President and Founder Zach Adelman. "When I look at all our products, hemp really strikes me as being the most nutritious product we carry."
According to the nonprofit Vote Hemp, "Of the 3 million-plus edible plants that grow on Earth, no single plant source can compare with the nutritional value of hempseeds." Hempseeds contain 33 percent digestible protein packed with all 21 known amino acids, Vote Hemp says. "Per serving, hemp contains more protein than meat, fish, chicken and cheese." It's also a good source of omega-3 and -6, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc and iron.
Hemp has an enticing, nutty taste that makes it rare among superfoods, Adelman says. "It's a very soft, pleasant flavor. Some of those functional foods don't have a very good flavor, so you have to enhance them."
From hempsicles to hempburgers With all these glowing reviews, you'd think that hemp foods would be sprouting up everywhere. But for now, U.S. offerings are generally limited to protein powders, seeds, oil and hempmilk, with a few energy bars, breads and granolas thrown into the mix. The problem is not lack of supply—manufacturers report there's enough hemp available in Canada, and the red tape it takes to cross the border isn't a huge hassle. And although some consumers need to be informed that hemp smoothies won't give them a buzz, manufacturers say education isn't a big barrier. Instead, the issue has been lack of consumer demand—but that's quickly changing.
"We could come out with 100 new products a year. You could see hemp in everything from ice cream to burgers to pancakes," says John Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva, a Sebastopol, Calif.-based company that has made hemp foods since 1999. But the "onslaught of regulations from the U.S. government" and higher hemp costs that result from a lack of subsidies enjoyed by crops like soy have slowed hemp manufacturing, and consequently, customer demand, he says.
"Hemp needs to go from a niche crop to an up-and-coming crop," Roulac says. He predicts that once hemp foods reach $1 billion in annual sales, "market forces will shoehorn in" legislation allowing hemp cultivation in the U.S., which would encourage more product innovation.
For now, companies like Richmond, British Columbia-based Nature's Path, which has added hemp-infused granola, granola bars, oatmeal and waffles to its dozens of breakfast-food offerings, report success in their hemp lines. "Our HempPlus Granola is one of our top-10-selling products in the U.S., and the waffles are within the top five," says Maria Emmer-Aanes, marketing director for Nature's Path.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 72,74,76