…plus Aussie hemp start-ups to watch
Australia’s hemp industry is booming, with farmers, retailers and consumers all chasing its potential.
Hemp is a sub-species of the Cannabis sativaplant, but without the psychoactive properties of its sibling marijuana. (Among the latter’s many cannabinoids giving the drug its “high”, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is probably the best-known. Hemp is THC free.)
While it’s been legal in Australia under strict licence to grow hemp for fibre and external human body uses since 1998, any food products could only be exported to countries where consumption is legal. However, in May 2017, law changes came about after state and federal health ministers agreed to allow hemp seeds to be sold for human consumption, while a few months later, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) legally recognised hemp and marijuana to have different properties.
These decisions allowed hemp to be used in food production, and ever since, production, manufacturing and sales for hemp products have been on the rise.
In Australia, hemp has historically been cultivated for industrial use and clothing, due to the sturdy fibre that can be harvested from its stem.
For food production, however, it’s the seed that’s gold. This is hulled and either eaten straight up or made into a hemp oil or hemp powder. These days, there is an increasing range of hemp products on Australian shelves – including oil, milk, protein powder, chocolate, bread, snack bars, beer and gin.
So, why is the hemp food industry growing so fast?
#1. Hemp is extremely good for you
Hemp seed is a nutritional powerhouse. It contains one of the highest sources of plant-based protein and is rich in the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. The oil from the seed also contains gamma linolenic acid (GLA) – an unsaturated fatty acid that is also found in breast milk.
But there’s more: the seed is full of vitamins A, B, D and E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. With all that, it will come as no surprise that hemp is often described as one of the most nutritionally dense foods there is.
#2. Plant-based diets are on the rise
Over two million Australians have chosen to eat an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet, and according to Roy Morgan Research, this number is growing. Being rich in plant-based protein, hemp helps people choosing a plant-based diet to meet their nutritional needs.
#3. Hemp products taste good
The seed’s flavour has been described as nutty and earthy, adding a little extra to all sorts of food and drink products. Consumers can sprinkle them on a salad, mix them into yoghurt or follow the Country Women’s Association’s lead and pop them in scones!
Metro cafés, including in Melbourne, are including hemp on their menus; bakeries are developing new breads; and brewers are taking the plunge with craft beers featuring hemp.
#4. Hemp has medicinal benefits
Not only can you eat it, you can also take hemp for health issues. There’s rising demand for cannabidiol (CBD), a substance that has been proven to treat epilepsy. People are also using CBD to treat a range of other health problems, including inflammation, pain and anxiety.
#5. Hemp is easy to grow
Hemp is a fast-growing, hardy plant that doesn’t need much water or fertiliser. The crop can be closely planted, reaping a high yield per hectare, and is much easier to grow than the traditional corn, wheat or soy.
While hemp is less of a nitrogen-fixer than a legume, its deep tap root brings nutrients up to the top soil, improving it, making the 120-day crop excellent in rotational farming.
For farmers looking to diversify, this crop has made good commercial sense. While Queensland features the largest number of commercial hemp growers, it’s farmed across Australia. Many growers added it to their crops in the last 18 months, since its legalisation for food production in November 2017.
#6. Hemp benefits the economy
Hemp sales have rocketed worldwide in recent years. Global hemp sales hit USD$3.7 billion in 2018 and are forecast to reach USD$5.7 billion by 2022.
The Australian hemp market is growing, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s forecast to reach AUD$3 million by 2023, up from AUD$300,000 in 2012. This would be a growth of 900% over 12 years.
While sales are increasing, hemp’s reputation is still somewhat tarnished by its close association to marijuana. But for open-minded Australian growers, manufacturers, retailers and individuals, this is a seed worth planting for their health and their pocket.
Aussie hemp start-ups to watch …
Technically not an Aussie startup, Elixinol Global (AXL: EXL) is the result of a merger between Colorado-based Elixinol LLC and Hemp Foods Australia. Elixinol LLC is the wholesale and retail provider of hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) dietary supplements and topical products, while Hemp Foods Australia (see below) is a manufacturer and distributor of hemp foodand skincare products.
Created by former psoriasis sufferer Natalie Moubarak because she was lacking in vitamins and hydration, +Hemp now sells water-based beverages incorporating natural hemp extract to more than 100 stores, including selected IGAs in New South Wales, BP stores and metro petrol stations, and outlets in Melbourne and Adelaide, as online via Dan Murphy. Seven weeks after launching her first product, Moubarak had already hit her six-month business goals, such was the demand for this new product category.
Australian Primary Hemp
This Victorian-based food companyoffers a product line of Hemp Seeds, Hemp Balance and Hemp Boost with standout packaging. Australian Primary Hemp marketing coordinator, Georgina Beasley told Australian Food News, “We want to move towards making Australian-grown hemp a household item among Aussie families and a great way in moving towards this goal is by creating beautiful, unique packaging that stands out and grabs your attention.” In June 2019, it was announced Alchemia Limited (ASX: ACL) has conditionally agreed to acquire the business.
This Australian business uses nanotechnology to develop premium cannabidiol (CBD) and cold-pressed hemp oils. The start-up isbacked by ASX-listed cannabis investors MMJ Holdings (ASX: MMJ) Currently, Hemple’s food products are manufactured in Australia, but its CBD oils are made in the USA.
… and an Aussie hemp ‘old hand’
Hemp Foods Australia was founded in 1999, and while it could supply hemp for human consumption to several export destinations, there was no domestic market for food products – until 2017. However, the restrictions pushed founder Paul Benhaim to innovate and diversify, with a hemp-fibre-based plastic business (as an alternative to mainstream petrochemicals), used in several commercial products; along with a paper made from recycled paper and hemp, produced by eco-company Zelfo Australia; and building-industry products. With the UK’s different regulations, Benhaim created a “chocolate bar” based on hemp seed there in the mid 1990s, which became the best-selling health food bar in supermarkets.
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Image credits: iStock/ natalie_board (main); +hemp (middle); Hemp Foods Australia (bottom)