Tracking growth in the hemp-based food and drink sector

The passage last December of the US farm bill has opened new doors for innovation in the food and beverage sector as hemp became legal on a federal level in the country.

Instead of a controlled substance, the plant is now treated as a farm commodity, meaning there are far fewer barriers for companies looking to enter the market – leading to a surge in activity in the sector.

According to cannabis and CBD industry market research firm Brightfield Group, the hemp CBD market is growing at a “breathtaking pace” and could be worth $22 billion by 2022.

With such positive projections, hemp growers are increasingly under pressure to supply the best strains of the plant to meet demand.

This is a challenge that agricultural food ingredient company Arcadia Biosciences hopes to solve through a new business unit dedicated to the optimisation of cannabis plant content, quality, climate resiliency and yield.

“Industrial hemp, along with all strains of cannabis, are decades behind other agricultural crops in terms of improved plant genetics,” said Matt Plavan, Arcadia Biosciences CFO and president of the newly formed Arcadia Specialty Genomics unit.

Matt Plavan, Arcadia Biosciences CFO.

“As with our wheat and soybean products, we will create hemp-­based solutions that allow farmers to be more productive and enable consumer packaged goods companies to differentiate their brands in the marketplace.”

Arcadia aims to create a suite of hemp varieties with more desirable plant content, such as zero-THC, higher-CBD varieties that can be harvested to create functional hemp-based ingredients such as CBD oil.

For Plavan, the passage of the farm bill has created an “enormous opportunity” to impact the quality and reliability of the hemp-based ingredient supply. “Today, the majority of the CBD found in food, beverages and supplements is imported, unregulated and often untested,” he said.

“The 2018 farm bill will change that landscape and respond to government, CPG and consumer demand for high-quality US-grown hemp – an ingredient with many associated health and dietary benefits that are highly desirable and marketable.”

With food and beverage manufacturers scrambling to develop and launch hemp-based products, there has been an increase in cross-sector collaborations. Earlier this month, cannabis company Tilray expanded into the natural food category after completing the $318 million acquisition of Manitoba Harvest, which it describes as the world’s largest hemp food manufacturer.

Canada-based Manitoba Harvest produces a range of hemp-based granola, hemp-based protein powder and shelled hemp seeds. It also plans to release hemp wellness bars this summer.

“Diversifying the Tilray portfolio to include hemp-based food products and expanding our production footprint to include hemp supply sources allows Tilray to be well-positioned to lead in the natural hemp foods, CBD and cannabis space,” a Tilray spokesperson told FoodBev.

“Our strategic acquisition of Manitoba Harvest gives us a major advantage of brand recognition, state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities, a robust supply chain network, distribution in over 16,000 major retailers, and 20 years of leadership and credibility in the hemp foods industry.”

One of the main challenges that Tilray and Manitoba are up against is the increase in product launches as new players enter the sector. One company that is looking to take advantage of growth in the market is Elmhurst 1925, a New York-based producer of plant-based nut and grain milks.

Last week, the firm released a new unsweetened hemp creamer, which is crafted with four ingredients, including hemp cream made from hemp seeds.

It took the company four months to bring the creamer from concept stage to a commercially packaged product. It has been created through Elmhurst’s HydroRelease method – a process that separates the components of a nut, grain or seed before reassembling them as a creamy, beverage-ready emulsion.

Elmhurst had to overcome the strong flavour of hemp and its stability in low-pH coffee but the firm believes there exists a demand for such products among today’s consumers.

Shashank Gaur, senior food scientist at Elmhurst 1925, said that as well as promoting diversity within the plant-based category, hemp-based products provide “exceptional nutritional and medicinal benefits”.

“As the hemp industry matures, the consumer taste preferences will continue to evolve and their palates will become more and more refined,” he said.

The company is already planning the launch of new hemp-based creamers, including French vanilla, hazelnut, and golden milk variants.

And with products as diverse as hemp water, hemp-based coconut snacks and even hemp liqueur going on sale in recent months, further growth can be expected right across the food and drink industry.

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