A field of hemp, which is about to become legal to sell as food.

The hospitality industry is no stranger to red tape, but in 2017 the scissors are out and hemp is in. Madeline Woolway found out what the future holds for the ancient crop.

On 28 April, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) announced the decision to permit sale of low-THC hemp seed products as food. The development has been praised by many in the foodservice industry, with a number of high profile chefs already preparing to include hemp foods on menus when they become legal to purchase from November this year.

Although the sale of low-THC hemp seed products as food is not permitted in Australia or New Zealand until the changes come into effect, the crop is already legally grown in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, under strict licensing conditions and chefs can get a head start by looking to other countries where hemp foods have been legal for a number of years.

What do you need to know?

While hemp (Cannabis sativa) is a cannabis plant species, it contains very low levels of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the cannabinoid associated with marijuana’s psychoactive properties. Additionally, hemp seeds have low levels of cannabidiol – the active component of cannabis extracts used for medicinal purposes – and therefore does not have therapeutic effects. The FSANZ decision will impose strict limits on the levels of THC and cannabidiol in hemp foods, as well as strict guidelines around marketing and labelling the foods to prevent any suggestion that hemp foods will have psychoactive or therapeutic effects, or branding that references still-illicit cannabis.

Although there are no therapeutic effects, hemp is known for its nutritional profile. The seeds are high in protein and are a rich source of B vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 and omega-6. It’s important to note that FSANZ’s decision is limited to the sale of hemp seeds, and does not extend to the leaves. Australian and New Zealand will now join countries like the USA, Canada and many in Europe, where hemp seeds are used in a range of foods.

Hemp products also enjoy popularity in South Korea and Japan, where Hemp Foods Australia distributes hemp seeds, oils and protein powder through sister company Hemp Foods Japan.

Why should you be interested?

According to Hemp Foods Australia, the international market for hemp foods is currently estimated at $1 billion annually, with founder and CEO Paul Benhaim predicting that the demand for Australian hemp foods will quadruple in the next few years.

“In the US it had a 44 percent growth increase last year. So even in the biggest market it has an enormous growth rate,” said Benhaim.

Hemp plants are popular among farmers and often used as a rotation crop that is beneficial to soil health. Along with farming benefits, hemp is considered by many to be a ‘superfood’. It’s a combination that bodes well for diner interest, with sustainable and healthy choices now crucial menu inclusions.

“There are obviously a lot of superfoods with very unusual tastes and qualities. Hemp is definitely unique, I can’t say it tastes like anything else, but it is very similar to other fatty seeds and nuts. It’s a new taste, but it’s very versatile,” Benhaim told Hospitality.

“It tastes creamy and nutty, like a cross between pine nut and sunflower seeds. It’ll have broad appeal.”

A number of venues have already expressed interest in hemp seeds, including the Fink Group.

“They’ve visited our facility and have very forward thinking chefs,” said Benhaim. “They’ve said they’ll put a hemp menu together when November comes.”

Natural curiosity is responsible for Sydney-based Jared Ingersoll’s experiments with hemp seeds.

“It’s an amazing plant with multiple uses and the fact it’s related to a controlled substance has cast a bit of a shadow over it,” he told Hospitality.

“In my experience, the uptake of new things always comes from curious and creative people in the industry. You generally see it emerging first in parts of the industry that already have similar processes to support those new ingredients. That’s why I’m putting my money on the beer industry. Using hemp to make a beer is not that different from their current methods.

“I think it’s a really beautiful relationship. We have these chefs that are really pushing the boundaries with new ingredients. The real hope for hemp as a food is to get people curious.”

How can you use hemp?

Hemp seeds can be processed and used in a number of applications, with many options suitable for the hospitality industry.

“It’s harvested like any other seed or grain, then cleaned and the husk is taken off,” said Benhaim. “When we first started we had lots of crunchy parts from the husk in it, which takes away from the awesome texture of the seed meat. But now we’ve learnt how to separate that really well. The crunchy part is enjoyed in parts of Europe, but it has niche appeal.”

The seeds can be cold-pressed into oil, which works well as a dressing and drizzled on soups, or ground up into a meal, which can also be turned into a protein powder.

“The powder is very fine and can be used in a couple of ways. One is to add depth and texture to sauces and reductions. Second, it can be used in baking. You wouldn’t completely replace your regular flour, you would use it in a small percentage, maybe 20 to 30 percent,” said Benhaim.

“The seeds can also be ground up with water and turned in a non-dairy milk or cream that is wonderful in desserts.”

Benhaim has also seen hemp seed products used in multitude cuisines, from Europe to Asia. Chefs closer to home have also been experimenting, Ingersoll among them.

“At the moment I’m doing research into different applications. It’s really early days for the hemp food industry in Australia but there is definitely really huge potential,” he said.

“You can roast them, put them into cereals, toss them through a granola, or in a dessert that you want a nice crunchy texture would be good.

“We’re still mapping out how the flavour profile moves through different applications, but it works quite well in braises and stocks. It gives them some nice bitterness that you can juxtapose with caramelised veg and stuff like that. It imparts a really nice flavour.

“We’ve also done a lot of smoking, incorporated it into salts and used it as a seasoning; like as dry rub before smoking the meats. And I’ve been mucking around with Lebanese-style pickles. When you steep them it’s got quite a noticeable bitter flavour very similar to hops.”

While hemp is a versatile ingredient, with many uses already discovered and potential to find more, there is also at least one limitation. Benhaim cautions against cooking with hemp oil at high temperatures for long periods of time, because of the fatty acid content. Other than that, the world is your oyster.

“It’s used throughout the world. I’ve been working with hemp for 23 years now and have seen it used in a multitude of restaurants,” said Benhaim. “Hopefully Australia will catch up now.”

This article originally appeared in Hospitality’s. Subscribe June 2017 issue. for more content like this.


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