New Zealand has lagged behind the rest of the world in its attitude to hemp, but now innovative businesses are tapping into the nutritional benefits of this ancient crop.
A pharmacist and a banker selling hemp? It sounds like some kind of dodgy drug deal. It’s not though: it’s the leading edge of the hemp revolution. Which is growing fast.
Brendon McIntosh and Brad Lake have got a mission to improve the health of the people and the planet, starting with this versatile (and misunderstood) plant. With a kids’ snack bar set to hit supermarket shelves this year, the pair are using their new business, the Brothers Green, to help hemp shake off its undeserved and unhelpful stigma.
Let’s start by making a few things clear. Hemp is not marijuana, but another strain of cannabis that has absolutely no psychoactive properties. It does, however, have heaps potential for use. The protein-rich seed can be used as the base for a bunch of different food products, from hemp milk to protein powder, while the rest of plant has a long list of uses, including clothing, packaging and building.
In November 2018, New Zealand became the last country in the world to make hemp seed legal for human consumption – before this, it was only the oil we could eat. Of course, it’s an ancient crop, and before hemp got lumped in with cannabis and made illegal, humans have been making use of it as far back as 10,000 years ago. So with this latest law change putting hemp back on the scene, folks are starting to get inventive.
For McIntosh, who studied nutritional medicine after finishing his pharmacy degree, it was the nutritional benefits of hemp that caught his attention. He’d been playing around with plant-based supplements, and protein powders in particular. “I started looking into plant-based proteins, but the main one seemed to be pea, which had to be imported from Europe,” he says.
This was when a med student put him on to hemp – McIntosh admits he thought it was the same as marijuana, and initially didn’t want anything to do with it. “Once I started reading about it though, I realised just how good it was for you, and that they’re completely different” he says.
So what’s so special about hemp? For a start, it’s really high in GLA (an omega 6 fatty acid), which is anti-inflammatory. Aside from quinoa, it’s also the only complete plant-based protein source, with all 20 amino acids. It’s easily digestible, unlike whey or other commonly isolated protein sources, and the fibre content helps with digestion and gut health.
“Being a health professional and seeing so many people with chronic disease and obesity, all because of the foods they were eating, it was a no-brainer.” So McIntosh started bagging up Ashburton-grown hemp and selling it ‘for dogs’ – this was three years ago, and the seed was only legal for animal consumption. Yeah, New Zealand has been pretty behind the eight ball with this one.
This was how McIntosh met Brad Lake, an early customer who came on board after one hemp exchange led to an all-night discussion about the state of our health and the environment. Deciding on hemp as their vehicle for change, the boys progressed to the Riccarton farmers market, selling their hemp protein powder to curious Cantabrians.
They’ve come far since then, winning the Foodstuffs FoodStarter competition with their kids’ snack bar, which will be stocked in New Worlds across the South Island this year. Though they’re still selling their protein powder under their Beefy Green brand, the boys figured having a supermarket validate the concept with a kids’ product was a pretty strong way to challenge people’s perceptions.
They’ve also just finished the harvest of their first New Zealand hemp crop, and have launched a hemp oil cosmetics brand, Kōaka. They’ve brought a third member on board, designer Eden Sloss, to help create their first clothing line, Original Canvas. Lake says he realised pretty quickly how many different products and markets hemp could expand into. “It ticked a lot of boxes for us and our grand vision,” he says.
Lake says people can start by incorporating it into their diet. “You can just sprinkle a tablespoon of the hearts (unhulled seeds) on any food, or drizzle the oil onto salads. It makes really good falafel and hummus, as well, and hemp milk made out of the seeds is incredible” he says.
Further north, Auckland chef and hemp specialist Cameron Sims has been singing hemp’s praises for a few years now. His mission, with his enterprise Plant Culture, is to get every Kiwi eating three tablespoons of hemp seed a day. It’s catching on, too. Simon Gault was one of his first customers, creating bread and granola with hemp seed, and going live with a hemp seed pizza-making session. It’s popping up on menus across the country, and Rebel Bakehouse is about to launch cricket and hemp flour wraps.
“Giapo has even made an ice cream flavour using our hemp,” says Sims, who believes we’re at the dawn of the ‘Cannabis Age’. Plant Culture sells hemp oil, seeds and protein powder, and is also in the process of switching from imported to New Zealand-grown.
“We want to help people move from animal to plant-based sources of protein. As a chef, I’m always interested in what people are craving and how we can replicate that with hemp so that they’re like, ‘Shit, this is everything I want!’” he says. On that note, Cameron’s been playing with hempifying a national favourite – the sausage. He’s keeping the recipe close to his chest for that one, though.
Both businesses see hemp becoming a strong part of the New Zealand economy, and an environmentally conscious move – as long as we go about it the right way. As a rural banker, Brad was coming face to face with the reality faced by Kiwi farmers every day, and reckons hemp provides a viable alternative. “I was sitting down with farmers who weren’t able to be profitable under the current system and there wasn’t another option for them,” he says.
With a short growing period and low inputs, Brad says slowly introducing hemp can fit well with a lot of the cropping and livestock systems already in place. Because it grows so quickly (a season is three to four months), hemp fixes carbon from the atmosphere, and fast. It’s a farming method that can start to bring us back in harmony with our natural world.
“We can’t continue to do what we’ve already been doing – not just from an ecological perspective but from an economic,” Brad says. “At the moment, New Zealand is being a follower, when we definitely should be growing the best plant-based protein in the world, the way we do with all our other agricultural crops,” he says.
Cameron is spreading a similar message – that we’ve got an opportunity, but not to bastardise it. He says hemp will lead the way to a more regenerative culture. With China growing hemp at a tenth of the cost that we can, the opportunity is not in commodity. “We’ve got to find our niche in the market. Not just jump on the bandwagon, but use our innovation and go about this is in a clever way,” he says.
In the meantime, though, if you want to hop on the bandwagon, get your hands on some hemp. It’s good for you and our environment, and tastes great in a brownie that’s not going to get you high.
QUICK HEMP RECIPES
- Blend 1 cup of water with 3 tablespoons of hemp seed. Add banana or sugar if you want a little sweetness, or a dash of cinnamon for spice.
Pantry hemp seed slice
- Blend hemp hearts, desiccated coconut, cocoa or cacao, coconut oil, any nuts or seeds you’ve got in the pantry, dates and a tablespoon of apricot jam. Pop in the freezer for 1 hour or more and you’re good to go – feel free to get creative!
Savoury hemp crumble
- Blend hemp hearts, garlic salt, nutritional yeast and a dash of oil (hemp, olive, avocado or whatever you’ve got at home) and you’ve got a pretty convincing hemp ‘cheese’.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.