Industrial hemp – a safe and legal food ingredient permitted in the US market - is not the same as marijuana, and it won’t get you high, stresses Boulder, CO-based Hemp Health (Evo Hemp bars) co-founder Jourdan Samel.
The confusion arises because hemp comes from Cannabis sativa, the same plant species as marijuana, but contains little to no THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
However, while it is legal to sell and consume foods and beverages containing hemp seeds here (indeed they are sold everywhere from Kroger to Costco), the US regards all forms of cannabis as Schedule I substances (along with heroin), and is the only major industrialized country that outlaws domestic hemp production at a federal level (except for R&D purposes/ag pilots in select states under the 2014 Farm Bill), forcing most companies to source most of their hemp from Canada, Europe and China.
US-grown hemp will start going into our products in September
Frustrated by these contradictions, many states have therefore taken matters into their own hands, says Samel, who is now working with US farmers in several states [CO, WA, OR, NV, ND, KY] to source domestically-grown organic hemp for his firm’s Evo Hemp bars and other products in the pipeline.
“The momentum just keeps building. Four years ago it was only two states, but right now, 28 states have gone over the head of the federal government and passed their own bills [to allow hemp cultivation] and within the next 12 months more than 35 states will probably allow it in some form, so after the election, I think in 2017, the federal ban on industrial hemp will be lifted.”
Last month the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution recognizing the role industrial hemp could play in boosting the economy in states such as Kentucky, adds Samel, who acknowledges that federal bills that would remove industrial hemp from the controlled substances list (The Industrial Hemp Farming Act S.134 and H.R. 525) have repeatedly failed to progress through Congress, but says the climate has changed significantly in the past year or two.
Meanwhile, the ‘Harvesting Liberty’ documentary by outdoor pursuits brand Patagonia has also significantly raised awareness about the benefits of farming hemp, which is drought tolerant, good for soil health, and does not require lots of pesticides and herbicides, he adds.
Locally-sourced hemp: 'In a few years the US will be a leader in organic hemp farming.'
“Starting next month we’ll be sourcing from here in Colorado and other states, so US-grown hemp will start going into products in around September,” explains Samel, who has historically sourced his hemp seeds from Canada.
“Several farmers have reached out to us – from small family farmers to large conglomerates growing a few thousand acres of hemp – it’s a bit more expensive to source from the US right now, but that will probably change over the next two-to-three years so that we’re competitive with the rest of the world.
“It’s really important to us to source locally. The hemp industry could be vital to our agricultural economy and it’s far less resource intensive than many other crops. Many people also don’t realize that hemp used to be the largest cash crop in the US for well over 100 years.
“The other benefit of sourcing from the US is that around 90% of the farmers I have spoken with in the US are growing hemp on organic land using organic farming practices, so in a few years the US will be a leader in organic hemp farming.”
Hemp is moving into the mainstream
Hemp, which is steadily creeping into scores of products, from beverages, yogurts and protein powders to granola, is the star ingredient in Evo Hemp bars, which are now available in 3,000+ stores from Albertsons to Whole Foods, compared with c.600-700 this time last year, says Samel, who first started pitching the bars to retailers in late 2012 with co-founder and former college room-mate Ari Sherman.
“Hemp is finally getting beyond the natural products niche and becoming mainstream.”
Strong sales growth is coming from a combination of picking up new accounts and growing velocity in existing stores, adds Samel, who is preparing to launch a series of hemp-fueled new products in the coming months from high-protein roasted hemp and chia crisps, to flavored hemp hearts with Colorado-grown hemp seeds, and other products to service retailers’ bulk grocery departments.
“This time last year we were selling maybe 30 units per store per week and today we are selling about 130 units per store per week. A big part of this has been trial. We’re still doing demos almost every day.
“We’ve also seen a big increase in hemp products hitting the market, and we’ve seen big brands such as Kashi [Kellogg] and LÄRABAR [General Mills] start using hemp seeds in snack products; you also see hemp seeds in the bulk foods section of retailers and there is just a greater awareness overall, although education is still a huge part of what we do.”
Memo to Facebook… industrial hemp is legal
That said, not everyone has got the message that hemp foods are legal, he observes, referencing an unwillingness on the part of insurance companies to work with a company selling hemp products and issues with social media platforms that will not run ads promoting hemp products or have taken down postings from companies selling hemp products due to confusion over hemp’s legal status.
Gunhee Park, another entrepreneur seeking to raise awareness of hemp – and sell hemp products online via a new platform called Ministry of Hemp – recently contacted FoodNavigator-USA to alert us to some of the “shocking roadblocks” he faced as he attempted to get his business off the ground.
Park claims he was thwarted at every turn as facebook would not run ads for 'illegal products' and payment processing companies refused to process payments for ‘pseudo pharmaceuticals’ despite the fact that products made from industrial hemp have been legal for years, but says he is hopeful that things will improve as awareness grows.
US retail sales of hemp food & beverages approached $90m in 2015
According to the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), US retail sales of hemp food, supplements and body care products were estimated to be around $283m in 2015, with around $90m in sales coming from food products such as non-dairy milk, protein bars, and shelled seeds.
However, actual sales are likely far higher as the SPINS data the HIA referenced does not include sales from Whole Foods Market, Costco and some other key retailers.
Confused about the legal status of hemp? Read THIS.