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Hungry for hemp

When the pipe dreams of food entrepreneurs, hemp activists and libertarian farmers come true, America’s fruited plains will be ripe with emerald waves of industrial hemp, a plant deeply rooted in the nation’s fabric and politics.

In this imagined world, we’ll eat a perfectly balanced, scientifically documented source of the essential fatty acids we need to keep our arteries supple and our brains finely tuned, in consumer foods from hemp tofu to hemp ice cream. Never mind debunked claims of positive drug tests.

Hemp will rotate with corn and soybean crops, boosting domestic farming, processing and manufacturing as the United States joins industrialized economies from Germany to China in hemp cultivation.

Before American consumers get a mainstream hit of hemp, however, some hemp activists insist the ultimate shift in consciousness must occur: The United States government must end its prohibition against marijuana, hemp’s heady cousin.

These entangled political, market and consumer issues have bummed hemp’s high hopes of becoming the greatest thing since soy.

But some of that’s changing. Sterilized industrial hemp seed – something that couldn’t get a canary high – is no longer just hippie health food, a gateway to pothead humor or an edible target in the war on drugs.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration recently abandoned, without comment, its three-year effort to ban commercial foods made from or containing nonpsychoactive industrial hemp seed and hemp oil.

“It’s perfectly legal to use sterilized hemp seeds in foods,” said Ellen J. Fried, who teaches food law and food studies at New York University. “The DEA lost. It’s a victory (for the hemp industry) except for the fact th at you can’t grow it in the United States. That’s not a victory. That’s kind of crazy. But hemp’s there. It’s in Trader Joe’s. It’s in Whole Foods.”

While the DEA’s crackdown scared some hemp food companies out of business, hemp foods sparked a buzz, moving from natural food stores to upscale grocery chains in the form of bread, energy bars, waffles, granola, coffee, beer, veggie burgers, pretzels and salad dressings.

Hemp food manufacturers crow about hemp’s nutrition benefits. They boast that hemp contains all of the essential amino acids – in nutritionally significant amounts and in the desirable ratio. Most oil seeds, like the currently in-vogue flax, contain plenty of linoleic acid from the omega-6 family but offer little alpha-linolenic acid from the omega-3 family, the branch of essential fatty acids that is most lacking in Western diets.

They tout hemp as a safer source of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids than fish, whose mercury levels trigger health concerns. They say hemp can replace meat as a protein source.

But none of that has been put to independent test in the United States. Hemp’s nutritional data comes from Canadian and European government and university studies, or from industry studies.

Gero Leson, a Northern California environmental researcher who coordinated a 2001 study that debunked claims that hemp caused positive drug tests, is assembling an independent team of nutrition experts to analyze hemp and make recommendations on future analysis.

“My vision is to have one peer-reviewed paper that comes out in a well-established journal of nutrition that essentially summarizes all the relevant nutritional attributes of hemp seeds and oil, i.e. macronutrients, fatty acids composition, proteins, vitamins and minerals,” Leson said.

“But I also want to look at potential anti-nutrients you find in other seed oils. We don’t want to just look at the good stuff. We also want to know if there’s something in hemp seeds that’s bad.”

The lack of a comprehensive study creates suspicion of hemp, Leson said. Mainstream proponents of hemp’s health benefits run toward holistic health’s usual suspects, like Dr. Andrew Weil.

Leson’s study is funded through matching funds from the Canadian government and the Hemp Industries Association. Expert panelists will have no ties to the hemp industry. Leson expects the study to begin by June, with findings published next year.

Leson, who consults on hemp’s environmental and industrial applications, said hemp research to date mostly has focused on agricultural and industrial issues and is years behind research into foods like flax and walnuts, both rich sources of essential fatty acids.

“The biggest challenge the hemp industry has faced for the last three years in the United States is the threat of its complete elimination by the DEA,” Leson said. “The battle in court with the DEA over whether hemp foods are legal or not has really absorbed all the resources the industry has.”

Leson said hemp suffered from its own hype in the 1990s, when Canadian regulations brought hemp products onto the market.

“Hemp was the plant that was going to save the world with food and fiber,” Leson said. “Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out this way. Many of those statements were based on pretty lousy science and just a complete lack of evidence. America likes a good hype. But I think hemp just went way overboard in hyping its benefits, and that just turned people off.”

That’s why Leson’s study is important, said David Bronner, chairman of the Hemp Industries Association’s food and oil committee.

“The market’s already exploding, but the studies are going to give us serious credibility,” said Bronner, whose group estimates annual sales of Canadian and American hemp food products in this country is $40 million.

Don’t expect General Mills or Nabisco to partake any time soon, but upstart food marketers are rehabbing hemp’s head-shop reputation, one that elicits giggles even from some nutrition researchers and public relations people who were asked to comment on hemp professionally.

“Some companies want to play up the connection with hemp and marijuana,” observed NYU’s Fried. “Some companies put the leaf on their labels to make it seem illicit even when it isn’t.”

“We have the five-leafed hemp graphics on our package,” said David Neuman, vice president of sales and marketing for Nature’s Path, a Vancouver, B.C., company that makes hemp granola, waffles and energy bars, among other nonhemp food, south of the border in Blaine. “Not for any kind of gimmicky sense but because we’re not afraid of saying industrial hemp is a very important crop.”

For retailers that stock hemp foods, it’s about consumer demand, not politics.

“We’re not going to sell it just because it’s hemp. It has to be able to hold its own,” said Pat St. John, marketing director for Trader Joe’s, the specialty grocery chain that sells Nature’s Path HempPlus granola at its stores, including those in University Place and Federal Way.

At the Hemp Industries Association’s conference and trade show in San Francisco shortly after the DEA decision, hemp entrepreneurs from the United States and Canada spoke of nutrition profiles and shelf positions, of penetrating new markets and maximizing oxidative stability.

“The more people are exposed to hemp, they’ll see that it has nothing to do with drug culture and drug use,” said the HIA’s Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which contain hemp oil. In 2003, Bronner’s Southern California company got behind AlpSnack, a Swiss-recipe snack bar that contains hemp seeds. Proceeds from AlpSnack sales offset a portion of the $200,000 in legal fees the HIA is suing the DEA to recover.

“No one associates poppy seeds with opium,” Bronner said. “You just associate poppy seeds with poppy-seed bagels. Eventually, with enough time and enough consumer use, everyone is just going to associate hemp seed with nutrition and food.”

But don’t hold your breath for Honey Bunches of Hemp or Hemp Wheaties.

“Not in a million years,” Neuman said. Major food companies are “not even looking at functional foods that much. General Mills’ organic cereals are knock-offs of Cheerios, they’re knock-offs of Shredded Wheat and stuff they think will appeal to the average customer.”

“It’s the same reason big companies weren’t producing health bars until soy people started pushing it and it became a moneymaker,” said NYU’s Fried. “Right now it’s not a moneymaker.”

ed.murrieta@thenewstribune.com

Editorial Notes: First published January 12th, 2005.

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