Say the words “hemp,” and visions of toked-out Grateful Dead fans might spring to mind. But while hemp comes from the cannabis plant, it’s from a different species than marijuana. And while smoking pot may do funny things to your brain, eating hemp can do good things for your body. Hemp seeds are packed with healthy fats, protein and fibre, leading some to believe that hemp will be the next superfood, right up there with chia seeds and quinoa.
Hemp may not be a staple in grocery stores yet, but it has made a dent in the natural-supermarket scene. Shannon Smith, registered dietitian at Choices Markets, in B.C., says hemp is an every- day item in baskets at Choices stores. “From a nutritional standpoint, it really does have the whole package,” she says.
One more benefit that hemp can offer is convenience. Hemp “hearts,” which grow at the tip of the plant and are often sold in bags, can be mixed into smoothies or sprinkled on salads or yogurt. “You don’t have to do any hopping, so it’s easy for people to adopt into daily routines,” says Smith.
Retailers that want to stock up on hemp won’t have trouble finding Canadian companies from which to source products. One is Barrie, Ont.-based Mettrum Originals. In September, it unveiled a line of raw, shelled hemp seeds in four sizes (the 454-gram goes for about $16), hemp protein and fibre powder (in flavours such as vanilla and berry), hemp and quinoa snack bars, hemp seed flour and hemp lip balm sold in five-gram tubes. “Hemp,” believes Mettrum president, Gregory Herriott, “is like omega 3 to the power of three, and it’s going to accelerate beyond our expectations.”
Another hemp foodmaker is Winnipeg’s Manitoba Harvest, which bills itself as
the world’s largest producer of hemp food products. Known for its hemp hearts, the company has expanded into the snack market with hemp bars and, this past summer, bite-sized snacks under the name Hemp Heart Bites. Other homegrown hemp makers include Just Hemp Foods, in Niverville, N.B.; and Natera, in Burnaby, B.C.
A big obstacle for hemp is consumer acceptance. Household penetration of hemp food is only 3% in Canada, and just 1% in the U.S. Such low numbers can be attributed to the fact that hemp food hasn’t had nearly the attention as chia or quinoa.
Still, some Canadian companies are doing excellent business in America, where hemp production is still illegal in many states. Manitoba Harvest’s export business stateside has boomed, leading to 24% overall sales growth in 2014.
If nothing else, hemp has a good story to tell. Take Manitoba Harvest co-founder, Mike Fata. As a teenager growing up in Winnipeg, Fata tipped the scales at 300 pounds. He says the merits of hemp helped him slim down to his current weight of 185 pounds thanks to its healthful nature. Now, Fata says, he wants to “share hemp food with everyone.”
Fata is bullish on hemp’s potential, but believes customer education is required to boost sales. He recommends grocers demo the products in their stores and get employees to try them, too. To help, Manitoba Harvest provides retailers with pre-packaged samples for trial.
Cross merchandising may also boost sales. Given that hemp hearts are most often sprinkled on top of cereals or salad, Fata suggests displaying them in the dairy or produce section. “For snacks, a main attraction is convenience, so merchandise [accordingly],” he says. Perhaps then hemp’s move to the mainstream won’t seem so far out.