In recent years, the awareness around hemp has steadily grown. Derived from the plant cannabis sativa, hemp has received scepticism due to the association with another derivative from the same plant – marijuana. However, hemp lacks the psychoactive ingredient THC, which is found in marijuana. Used within a wide range of products, including foods and beverages, cosmetics and personal care products, nutritional supplements, fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibres, paper, construction and insulation materials, and other manufactured goods, hemp can be grown as a fibre or seed.

However, due to the close association with marijuana, it is illegal for farmers to grow hemp in the US. Renée Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy and author of a paper titled ‘Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity’, published earlier this year, states: “As production in the United States is restricted due to hemp’s association with marijuana, and the US market is largely dependent on imports, both as finished hemp-containing products and as ingredients for use in further processing (mostly from Canada and China). Current industry estimates report US hemp sales at nearly $600 million annually.”

Today, 30 countries around the world allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, with China being the largest producer and exporter, and Canada legalising the crop in 1996. To find out more about the crop we spoke to Tony Reeves, managing director at Hempco Europe Ltd.

Sonia Sharma: How did PlanetHemp start?

Tony Reeves: PlanetHemp is the retail brand of Hempco Canada. Hempco Canada was established by the Holmes family 15 years ago, effectively facilitating the Canadian hemp seed industry. They have been key innovators in terms of process and product, creating many ‘world first’ concepts including cold-pressed hemp seed oil, hemp protein powder, protein concentrate, hemp milk, yoghurt and ice cream and even a biodiesel lubricant named Hemphuel. Having established a strong position as an international supplier of high quality bulk hemp products (seed, oil, protein powders), the next step was to create a retail brand ‘PlanetHemp’ and develop a range of hemp based ingredients and added value products.

SS: How do you produce your hemp? What is the process behind it and where is it sourced from?

TR: We have a fully integrated ‘seed to shelf’ model whereby we grow our own hemp in several regions of Western Canada and once harvested, we utilise a bespoke processing stage incorporating five dedicated steps (generic practice comprises two stages) of clean-up and pressing, which removes the majority of the shell from the seed for a much better taste. The Hempco method also ensures that the delicate seed is protected, maximising nutritional content and preserving the chlorophyll (an excellent source of magnesium) naturally present in the seed to deliver probably the highest quality hemp seed oil on the market.

SS: How did you come up with the product range – from protein powder to the fruit bites? Has any particular product proved more popular?

TR: Our initial range was developed to supply the needs of several consumer segments: those looking for a versatile and healthy ingredient to add to their salads, soups or smoothies, hemp seed or the ideal finishing and nutritional oil – hemp seed oil (the only oil with the ideal Omega 3 & 6 balance); those looking for a great protein shake; and finally consumers seeking a tasty, healthy snack – our Cacao and fruit bites. We are now working on new concepts based on key trends such as ‘food on the go’ and developing exciting new offers to deliver innovation across a range of categories.

SS: Do you think hemp will become more mainstream in the future as awareness around it grows?

TR: Definitely yes. Indeed the move from niche to mainstream is already in progress and we are playing a major role in driving the process. I have had many, many conversations with consumers, NGOs, private and public sector organisations, and in every case, once the full benefits of hemp are communicated the interest in this amazing plant is substantial. For example, we are in active discussions with major multiples to explore how a high quality plant protein such as hemp can enhance virtually any category by addition or substitution.

By way of background, it is forecast that the market value of plant protein will increase by almost 30% by 2020, from around $7.7bn today to over $10bn. The main consumer drivers centre around an increasing level of health consciousness combined with growing concerns around the environmental and sustainability issues of meat production and indeed animal welfare matters. Food retailers and manufacturers are helping this growth by developing new and interesting products that incorporate plant protein to offer a great eating experience without asking the consumer to compromise on taste and enjoyment to gain a health benefit.

This trend towards plant protein is the foundation of a hemp ‘renaissance’ as hemp has more to offer than virtually any other plant protein source, coming in at 33% in comparison to 26%, 25% and 23.6% for fava beans, lentils and kidney beans, respectively. Uniquely, hempseed protein is 65% ‘globulin edistin.’ This closely resembles the globulin in blood plasma, actively supports our immune system and is extremely compatible with the human digestive system, making hemp protein easier to digest than many other plant proteins. Hemp protein and hempseed oil have been found to be a factor in DNA repair.

However, in addition to offering an excellent plant protein source, hemp offers many additional benefits to the environment and from an agricultural perspective represents a crop with probably the greatest number of commercial applications of any plant.

Hemp is one of the fastest growing plants and was first spun into usable fibre some 10,000 years ago. Hemp seed production is ‘carbon negative’ as it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere whilst growing than the equipment used to harvest, process and transport it. By comparison, soya bean production to ‘farm gate’ equates to 642 CO2eq/kg. Hemp can be refined into a vast and diverse range of commercial products including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed.