The Australian government is tipped to approve hemp as a legal food source in April.
Hemp food products could start showing up on our supermarket shelves and restaurant menus this year, with the hemp industry hopeful that regulators will approve the plant for safe human consumption next month.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand will next month examine a proposal to permit hemp seeds as food in Australia, after which the Australian Department of Health would complete the final amendments to existing legislation.
So, what exactly is hemp - and does it have anything to do with cannabis?
Though it is a plant from the same family as marijuana, industrial hemp contains no, or an extremely low amount, of THC, which is the ingredient that provides a high.
“Industrial hemp is legal to grow in Australia, and you could smoke an entire field of it if you wanted and not get high,” Paul Benhaim from Hemp Foods tells SBS.
It is legal to grow hemp in Australia, and the plant is currently used to make products like clothing, skincare products and building materials.
However, despite several reviews of legislation, Australia and New Zealand have both not yet legalised hemp as a food source, meaning retailers who sell products such as hemp seeds have to label their products “not for human consumption”. (Hemp oil can be sold in New Zealand as a food product, but not help seeds or other food products from industrial hemp.)
“Australia and New Zealand are two of the last countries in the Western world to allow hemp as a nutritional food,” explains Benhaim.
He says this time it seems likely the laws will be changed.
“We set Hemp Foods up with the expectation that hemp would be made legal as food years ago, so we’re very excited that this decision is finally going to go through.”
Why the wait?
North America, Europe, and most Asian countries have sold hemp as food for decades. So, why haven’t Australia and New Zealand done the same?
“Their excuse is that it may send a mixed message to the public, and that it may seem like the government is being soft on drugs,” says Benhaim.
A spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health confirms the reasoning behind rejections of legalisation so far.
“The variation [to current legislation] was [previously] rejected due to ongoing concerns including law enforcement issues, particularly from a policing perspective in relation to roadside drug testing, as well as that the marketing of hemp in food may send a confused message to consumers about the acceptability and safety of cannabis.”
The spokesperson tells SBS that a research project evaluating the impact of hemp as food on random drug testing will be taken into consideration by The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation next month.
The nutrition factor
In other countries, hemp is sold as food in many different forms, including seeds and oil, and used sprinkle in or on dishes and used in protein shakes and smoothies, salads and desserts.
But, does it have a nutritional quality?
Lucy Taylor, a Melbourne based nutritionist and dietitian, tells SBS that hemp seeds are a good source for plant-based omega 3 and omega 6.
“As with other seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, hemp seeds are still an incredibly nutritious addition to any diet, as they are high in protein and dietary fibre,” she said.
“They are also a good source of minerals including iron, zinc and magnesium. I like Sprinkling them on meals to boost the nutrition of the meal.”
Taylor doesn’t believe that there are any negative effects associated with hemp food and health.
“Hemp foods have already been declared safe for human consumption by numerous food regulatory agencies around the world including the FDA in the US."
A thriving industry
While there is already a hemp industry slowly growing within Australia, because it is legal to grow and use in manufacturing non-food items, the legalisation of the plant as a food source would provide a significant boost to the industry.
“We set up Hemp Foods with the expectation that hemp would be made legal as food years ago, and we're still waiting,” says Benhaim. Hemp Foods works with growers across the country, and manufactures and processes hemp for other businesses.
Benhaim believes that the legalisation of hemp as food will mark a big change for those involved in the process.
“We will then be able to clearly communicate to the public how tasty and versatile hemp foods are, and are likely to see many others joining us in using and selling the product,” he said.
“There are great opportunities for the public to not only enjoy hemp as a food but for the farming community to supply more and more hemp seeds as we grow.”
Benhaim says Hemp Foods has teamed up with a number of restaurants in Sydney to develop hemp menus, to be launched when the food is officially legal.
Lead image by Mike Mozart via Flickr.