South Australian hemp farmers are pushing the idea that nut-like hemp seeds should be a staple in the larder.
Their motivation is to get a slice of the global hemp food market predicted to be worth more than $9 billion by 2027.
Wow! The problem is, in 2018, SA’s fledgling hemp food market was predicted to be worth $3 million within five years.
Farmers are saying this relatively modest target is unlikely to be met – and are calling for a lift in community awareness.
“We need more awareness about the actual product itself, whether it be hemp oil, hemp flour, the hemp seed, on a consumer level,” hemp grower Steven Moulton told the ABC.
“Just to be able to build the industry, we need to get it in shopping bags in Australia, basically.”
NSW farmers, struggling to get the hemp industry thriving, are blaming drought – and a lack of research and development.
But, according to an upbeat report in The Farmer, there are “plans afoot to reshape hemp as a serious contender for cropping farmers”.
While hemp food is a slow but steadily growing industry, it won’t hit its stride until 2025.
Legal as food in Australia since 2017
In November 2017, the Australian Food Standards Code was changed to permit the sale of low-psychoactive hemp seed (it won’t get you stoned) as a food.
To be sold as a food ingredient, hemp seed has to contain less than 0.5 per cent of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, THC.
Australia was one of the last Western countries to make this move, over-turning a ban that had endured since 1937.
This type of hemp seed is known as “industrial hemp” – rather than medicinal hemp.
According to this helpful explainer at The Conversation, industrial hemp is also used as animal feed, for fibre to go into paper, to produce fabric and soundproofing for cars, and as a biofuel.
The entire industrial hemp market is expected to be worth $19.6 billion by 2027. Half of that will be food.
Hemp seed: What’s healthy, what’s hype
As a food, hemp seed – which is much like a nut in taste and texture – is excellent.
According to Professor Rachel Burton, head of the Department of Plant Science at the University of Adelaide, and author of The Conversation piece: “Hemp seeds contain around 25 per cent protein, up there with soybean and even better than quinoa.
“Most of the essential amino acids are present, plus valuable minerals and amounts of vitamin E.”
The high protein content makes hemp seed particularly attractive to vegans and vegetarians.
According to a review by CHOICE, hemp seeds are about 50 per cent fat, most of which is the healthy polyunsaturated variety, including the plant omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid.
Omega-3 is routinely called the healthy heart oil, but it’s not as well absorbed from plants as it is from fish.
Hemp seeds are found in breads and other baked goods, vegetable burger patties, and even water.
Simply using them in cooking is the cheapest and most reliable way of introducing hemp seeds to your diet.
Choice notes that some products promote hemp as an ingredient “for the sake of trading on the superfood status” but actually contain “negligible amounts”.
What about as medicine?
There are claims that hemp seeds are great medicine.
According to Choice, they’re said to reduce food cravings and food intolerances. It’s said to work as an anti-inflammatory, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, improves digestion and boosts immunity and energy levels.
The research supporting these claims is limited.
Professor Burton says that it’s not clear what types of polysaccharides (sugars) or dietary fibre hemp seeds contain, and “what our microbiome will make of hemp seeds when they get to the lower reaches of our digestive system”.
This leaves the question: Can microbes even ferment this seed material? Or will the hemp seeds, rich in fibre, be a guard against constipation?
Her Conservation piece includes a healthy poo chart so you can personally check on your hemp seed movement for the sake of science and peace of mind.