Hemp and its associated products are being used more widely, where regulation allows. Abi Millar looks at the current legal framework, explores current applications and asks what kind of health benefits this ingredient may have to offer.

It would be hard to find a plant as versatile as industrial hemp. Used for textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, food, and biofuels and paper, among many other things, the crop has been cultivated around the world for thousands of years. The ancient Mesopotamians spun cloth from its fibres, while the Neolithic Chinese ate its seeds.

Hemp growing has also played an important role in US history. The first American marijuana law, in 1619, didn’t just legalise the crop – it made it mandatory, with all farmers on the Jamestown plantations ordered to grow Indian hemp seed. When you consider that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper and that hemp was once legal tender, it becomes clear that the stigma against the plant is a recent invention. Today, that stigma may be on the way out.

Long stymied by regulation, the hemp market is once again gathering steam, with hemp and its associated products being used more widely. So what kind of hope is there for hemp, and what are some of its benefits as an ingredient?

Not a drug

Industrial hemp is a variety of cannabis sativa, a plant species that also includes the psychoactive drug marijuana. The two strains are chemically different, however, and hemp is not a narcotic. If you were to smoke large amounts of hemp flowers, you might get a headache, but that’s about it.

Cannabis sativa plants contain hundreds of different compounds, the two main ones being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The former is the psychoactive compound responsible for the feeling of being ‘stoned’, while the latter is thought to have various pharmacological benefits, but no mind-altering properties.

Relative to marijuana (which can have a THC content of 10% or higher), industrial hemp contains lower concentrations of THC and higher concentrations of CBD. While traces of THC are present, the concentrations are far too low to induce any narcotic effect.

On top of this, marijuana plants ~cannot easily be hidden among hemp plants. Plants of the contraband strain are typically wide, growing 5–10ft tall, whereas hemp plants are grown taller and thinner to produce maximum stalk-fibre lengths.

As the National Hemp Association website explains: “The two plants are more like first cousins, not identical twins.”

Unfortunately, hemp’s association with marijuana has been problematic, with lawmakers often failing to recognise the distinction between the two. The clampdown began in 1937, when the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act made hemp cost-prohibitive to grow. This was followed in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act, which classed hemp as a first-schedule substance and made its cultivation an offence.

The upshot was the creation of a sizeable market for imports – since certain parts of the plant were excluded from the law, many hemp-derived products could still be produced and purchased. By 2012, the US hemp industry was valued at an estimated $500 million in annual retail sales, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Legal again

It is only very recently that hemp has, once again, been grown legally on US soil. In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill, which allowed state departments of agriculture and institutes of higher learning to grow the crop for research and pilot programmes. This applies exclusively within states that have legalised hemp cultivation. Since then, more than 30 states have passed laws regarding industrial hemp, and at least 16 of them have given farmers rights beyond those listed in the Farm Bill.

Another bill, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, was introduced in the House and the Senate in 2015. If this bill is passed, the Controlled Substances Act will be amended to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of ‘marihuana’, effectively removing all restrictions on its cultivation. To date, the progress of this bill appears to have stalled.

Within the rest of the world, the legal picture varies by country. China is the world’s main hemp producer, and a substantial quantity is also cultivated in Europe. According to the European Industrial Hemp Association, 33,000ha of hemp were grown in Europe in 2016, a growth rate of 32% relative to the year before. All hemp grown in the EU needs to have a THC content of less than 0.2% (lower than the 0.3% threshold in place in Canada).

Overall, the legal status of hemp remains a complex, and sometimes touchy, subject. Hemp cultivation in the US is still prohibited on a federal level, and confusion reigns in the marketplace. For instance, a farmer might be able to grow the crop, but unable to obtain crop insurance, and economic development opportunities are still limited.

In many other parts of the world, tight restrictions have constrained the volumes grown, and there is a further twist in the tale when you consider the fluctuating legality of CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical in hemp.

As reported in the last edition of Ingredients Insight, legislators in the US and Europe have made recent attempts to clamp down on CBD – a move that industry bodies are fighting.

Growing market

Despite its grey legal status, the hemp market is growing fast. According to Hemp Business Journal, the US hemp retail market is expected to nearly triple between 2016 and 2020.

“Hemp Business Journal estimates the total retail value of all hemp products sold in the US to be at least $688 million for 2016,” said Sean Murphy, the founder and publisher.

“We estimate the hemp industry will grow to $1.8 billion in sales by 2020, led by hemp food, body-care and CBD-based products. The data demonstrates the hemp industry is growing quickly at 22% CAGR, and is being led by food and body-care products, with hemp CBD products showing a 53% AGR.”

The journal estimates that hemp food was responsible for 19% of sales in 2016, raking in $129.3 million. Hemp-derived CBD (which should be differentiated from marijuana-derived CBD) generated $130.0 million in sales, while supplements generated $26.0 million, personal care $163.0 million, consumer textiles $99.5 million, industrial applications $125.5 million and other consumer products $14.4 million.

CBD is by far the biggest growth category here, despite recent attempts to legislate, and that also applies in Europe. A 2016 report by nova-Institute and HempConsult pegged Europe’s market potential for CBD as around €2 billion.

Hemp foods are becoming increasingly popular. Demand for items like shelled hempseed, milk and cold-pressed oil – along with items containing them – is expanding every year.

According to research analyst Technavio, the global hemp-based foods market stands to grow at a CAGR of 20% by 2020.

Since they’re free from gluten, dairy, allergens, lactose, soy, phytoestrogens and pesticides, hemp foods are typically marketed to health-conscious consumers. The Hemp Industries Association describes hempseed as “one of nature’s most perfect foods”: it contains high levels of vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, minerals, fibre and high- quality plant protein.

Above all, hempseed is valued for its essential fatty acids. According to 2014 research by the University of Seville, hempseed oil contains a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (considered ideal), along with some plant chemicals thought to lower high blood pressure. The study’s authors stated this “may have favourable nutritional implications and beneficial physiological effects on the prevention of coronary heart disease and cancer”.

To break this down a little further, shelled hempseed contains around 9% alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat that most people don’t consume enough of. Hempseed oil contains 22%.

According to a World Health Organisation report, ‘Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition’, “The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is important because of their competitive nature, and their essential and different biological roles. It is suggested that the relative amounts of linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids in the diet should be below ten to one.”

This means, in short, that most people could benefit from incorporating more foods like hempseed in their diet, particularly if they are vegetarian and so don’t obtain omega-3s from fish oil sources.

Hempseed oil contains a 3:1 ratio of omega- 6 to omega-3 fatty acids (considered ideal), along with some plant chemicals thought to lower high blood pressure.

Highly sustainable

Industrial hemp is carbon-negative. This means, like any other plant, it draws carbon from the air, returning that carbon to the earth once the hemp products are discarded.

Hemp cultivation can also improve the quality of the soil itself via a process called phytoremediation.

According to an article on the website Recreator.org, hemp production requires just a quarter of the water used for cotton production, and half the amount of land. This might not sound important, but becomes significant when you consider that one cotton T-shirt requires thousands of pounds of water and about 0.5lb of chemicals to produce.

Hemp paper, which is highly recyclable, could stand to reduce deforestation, and hemp plastics – which are fully biodegradable – could displace petroleum-based materials. This is not to mention hemp’s potential as a biofuel, with an estimated fuel yield of 207gal/ha.

If this line of thinking sounds farfetched, it’s worth recalling that Henry Ford created a plastic car in 1941 that ran on hemp-based fuels, with fenders made from hemp and similar materials. His ultimate plan was to ‘grow’ automobiles, with a view to helping US farmers.

This year, his ambition came a little closer to being realised: at a Ford Motors-sponsored panel discussion in San Francisco, senior technical leader Debbie Mielewski said she entertained “high hopes” for her team eventually turning to hemp-fibre materials for vehicle manufacturing.

Time for take-off

It’s no surprise that some of the main pro-hemp lobbyists today are environmentalists. According to Morris Beegle, founder and owner of the Colorado Hemp Company, his consumer base has extended far beyond the growing ‘cannabis choir’.

“We’re reaching consumers and businesses from almost all the green, organic, sustainable, holistic, alternative markets, as well as standard petroleum-chemical- GMO-driven industries where people are having a moral awakening about the impacts of those products on the environment and health of society,” he said in 2016.

Whatever happens from a regulatory perspective, it’s clear that industrial hemp holds great unrealised potential. While it is not a nutritional, environmental or pharmacological panacea – its benefits are hard to ignore.

As more activists and industry bodies push for change, we can only hope the distinction between marijuana and hemp will be acknowledged, and that the industry will be given the push it needs to take off.