The Australian industrial hemp market is steadily growing, but industry leaders in Queensland say the public needs to be better educated about the difference between cannabis and hemp, for the industry to really excel.
- Food Standards permitted the sale of hemp as food last year
- Since then domestic demand has grown for locally grown hemp seeds
- Industry experts and businesses say more education and consumer trend research is needed
Last November, the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code permitted the sale and consumption of low-THC hemp seed foods, allowing producers the opportunity to access a growing global industry worth more than $500 million.
Before then, hemp was only able to be used for industrial and clothing purposes, but since then there has been strong domestic demand for locally grown hemp to be used in clothing, building materials and food products.
But Dr Gary Mortimer from QUT Business School said consumers needed to understand the benefits of hemp, and how it was different to cannabis-based products.
“It’s really important for this sector, because while there’s awareness around hemp, there’s a negative connotation around marijuana or cannabis-based products while the two are quite different, so it’s important people understand the difference,” he said.
“When you have that lack of education, people don’t understand how to use the product, they don’t understand the benefits, which means it’s difficult for them to adopt the product.
“The way we’re seeing hemp now used in clothing fibres, in seeds, moisturisers, hemp milk, again consumers need to understand what the clear benefits are.”
Hemp Farms Australia’s Lauchlan Grout said that since the legalisation of hemp food there has been an influx of Australian products made with locally grown plants hitting the market.
“We’ve seen a shift in demand in the human food, cosmeceutical, and beverage markets and a lot of interest in the pet food industry,” he said.
“There’s a lot of new brands popping up and they want to help develop the industry for primary producers and local farmers.”
Mr Grout and business partner Harrisson Lee have spent the past five years testing and growing hemp seed varieties so they are suitable for farmers in Queensland and New South Wales climates, but said there was still some confusion about the product.
“We still get calls every day from farmers wanting to know the actual difference between industrial cannabis and medicinal cannabis and whether they can grow it at home to help an aunty of theirs suffering from an illness,” he said.
“That just goes to show as a whole we’re still at that cross-section stage.”
So, what is hemp?
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis sativa plant species but it does not have the psychoactive properties of cannabis.
The protein-rich plant has a distinctly nutty flavour and is now being used in beverages like beer and milk.
Co-founder of cold pressed milk company MaMilk, Tegan Scates, said hemp food products have a strong following in the health food sector with more than 2 million Australians adopting a full or mainly vegetarian or vegan diet.
“We are seeing more Australians opting for a plant-based lifestyle and hemp is one of the highest sources of plant-based protein and contains omega-3 fatty acids,” she said.
Queensland dietitian Kate Di Prima said the benefits of hemp were similar to other seeds, but would not promote it as a superfood.
“In terms of hemp, chia seeds, flax seeds and linseeds I would put them all in the same category and I wouldn’t choose one over the other because all seeds have good fats, fibre and protein,” she said.
“I think that all core foods — so vegetables, salads, fruits, whole grains, lean meats including fish, chicken, eggs, tofu, legumes and all your dairy foods are classed as superfoods for the body and I think the term gives people an unrealistic expectation of one food in a particular group.”
Ms Prima said it was important to research food with evidence-based science and encouraged people to eat good quality, seasonal food.
Ms Scates agreed that while the largest growth in the industry has been the hemp food market, there’s been a number of challenges facing the sector, including the lack of public education and the limited data on consumer trends.
“We’ve seen the market at the moment becoming quite saturated with proteins and seeds and people don’t know what to necessarily do with them,” she said.
“It’s only been 12 months since the legalisation of hemp food and with that comes its challenges, but moving forward we’d like to see customer purchasing behaviours and data trends that can be used to bring out products that people are asking for.”
Currently there are 21 commercial hemp growers in Queensland, with eight of those licensees coming onboard since the legalisation of hemp food.