What's with all the fuss about hemp at the moment?
It is now legal for hemp food products to be sold in Australia - changes to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code allowing food products derived from hemp to be sold commercially came into effect November 12.
What kind of food products are we talking? Hash brownies?
Hemp is a species of cannabis, but unlike marijuana it contains negligible levels of the mind-altering chemical compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp has been used to make commercially available food products in Europe and North America for decades. The international market for hemp foods is estimated at $1 billion annually.
Hemp seeds are now available to sprinkle on your breakfast cereal and hemp protein powder can be mixed into smoothies or baked goods as a plant-based protein source.
Hemp Foods Australia's range of products. Photo: Supplied
Nutty-flavoured hemp seed oil is sold as an olive oil substitute for salad dressings and hemp milk is made by blending hemp seeds and water in a similar fashion to almond milk. A hemp ale made its commercial debut at Fremantle BeerFest on the weekend and you can expect to see hemp kombucha on the pour at health cafes.
"Instead taking a supplement everyday to get all-round goodness into your body, you can integrate hemp products into your normal diet," said a spokesperson for Australian Primary Hemp, a company growing the crop in Victoria's western district and manufacturing hemp products.
Why has it taken so long to for hemp food products to become available in Australia?
State and federal health ministers have rejected proposals to make hemp foods commercially available since 2002, fearing it would affect roadside drug testing and lead people to think the government was soft on drugs.
A study by Swinburne University triggered the change when it was found to be highly unlikely that the consumption of low-THC hemp foods would result in positive THC readings from oral fluid, urine or blood tests.
I've heard a lot of hemp advocates and some media outlets refer to hemp as a "superfood". Is this true?
"There are no strict rules around what foods can be called 'superfoods', so this title may be used for marketing purposes by any manufacturers or advocates of particular foods" says Dr Kellie Bilinski, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians' Association of Australia
Australian Primary Hemp's protein and oil. Photo: Supplied
"Often foods which are common and readily available are just as nutritious. For example, broccoli is just as healthy as kale but not marketed as a 'superfood'. It's also important to remember that no one food can provide all the nutrients you need. That is, eating just a few 'superfoods' here and there doesn't make up for an unhealthy diet!"
Although the term "superfood" is marketing spin with zero scientific backing, that doesn't mean hemp isn't good for you. It is particularly high in essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6.
"Generally, Australians aren't lacking omega-6, but many Australians are not meeting their omega-3 requirements," says Bilinski. "Omega-3 fats have been shown to be protective against heart disease and they help decrease LDL [low-density lipoprotein] cholesterol levels. However it is probably more beneficial to include omega-3 from animal sources such as fish."
Is hemp milk a healthy alternative to dairy milk?
"I recommend cow's milk as it's a nutritious and healthy food," says Bilinski. "If people prefer not to drink, or cannot tolerate, dairy milk and want to an alternative to cow's milk, I advise people to make sure it is fortified with adequate calcium. Whatever your preference, it's important to make sure you're getting enough calcium."
Hemple's Hemp Seed Protein Photo: Supplied
"If hemp milk is a way to encourage people to drink milk that's a good thing, as long as it is calcium-fortified to provide adequate nutrition. Although, there are no established scientific benefits to hemp milk over any other type, so I'd be weighing up the cost versus the benefits."
I've also heard hemp called a "bioavailable protein". What's all that about?
"This means the protein is readily digested and the amino acids are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream," says Margaret Allman-Farinelli, Professor of Dietetics from the University of Sydney's School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Charles Perkins Centre.
"The other important property about the protein is the amino acid score. The more essential amino acids - that is, those that the body cannot synthesis and must come from the diet - the higher the score. Hemp seeds have quite a good amino acid score but not as good as eggs, beef, soy protein isolate, chickpeas or kidney beans."
Hang on, hemp oil and protein powders were already for sale at my local health food store before November 12. How are these new products different?
They're more or less identical, however any hemp product on the market before November 12 was sold with label stating it was not for human consumption. Hemp oil was sold as a "moisturiser", for example.
The removal of that label opens hemp food products to a whole new world of marketing opportunities. It also means cafes and restaurants can start using hemp in the kitchen. Expect to see a lot of hemp muffins in 2018.