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Hemp, COVID and the Rise of the “Flexitarian”

Beyond Meat. Impossible burgers. Chick’n. Plant based meat alternatives were already on the rise as an increasingly attractive protein source for consumers looking to eat healthier and support more sustainable food production – and that was before COVID-19 ignited a global health pandemic and raised new concerns over animal-borne illness. New research predicts that trend will only accelerate, owing partly to the health benefits perceived by consumers during the pandemic, and the rise of ecommerce distribution therein.

As an industry, we should pay attention. Consider the addressable market opportunity this trend presents: Plant-based foods accounted for almost $5 billion in sales in 2019, up 11.4 percent, according to the latest data*.  Grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have grown 29% in the past two years. This double-digit growth rate shows no sign of slowing down.

Interestingly, these trends are not necessarily due to more Americans switching to strict vegetarian diets. Instead, there is a new emerging consumer type: The “flexitarian.” These people view plant-based options not as a replacement for meat, but as an occasional and acceptable substitution. They’re putting both meat proteins and plant-based protein products in the same grocery cart.

As consumer spending on plant-based meat alternatives increases, we’re seeing more creativity and innovation within what was previously a fairly static category. Market disruptors like Impossible Foods have piqued consumer interest and heightened their expectations for better looking, better tasting and more nutritious meatless options.

For decades, soy and pea proteins have been the go-to alternative protein sources, and for good reason. They’re readily available, low in cost and mild in both taste and texture. But just because these alternatives are plant-based doesn’t mean they’re the most nutritious option for health-minded consumers. Fortunately, a new and potentially healthier source of plant-based protein is hitting the market: hemp.

Since hemp was de-scheduled with the passage of the Farm Bill in late 2018, it has become one of the most interesting, if yet uncharted, new agricultural crops in America. Its value as an industrial textile has long been known, and demand for the hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) is surging with wellness-minded consumers. What has not yet been adequately explored is hemp’s potential as a superior alternative to other plants, such as soy and peas, grown as a dietary protein source. With the right combination of product development and marketing, we have the opportunity re-brand hemp as a new meat alternative.

Consider these five reasons why hemp makes a better plant-based protein:

  1. Hemp is exceptionally nutritious. Hemp seeds themselves are exceptionally nutritious and rich in healthy fats, protein and various minerals. Hemp is what is called a  “complete protein source” – more than 25% of its total calories come from high-quality protein and it contains all nine essential amino acids that humans must get from food. Hemp is also a great source of vitamin E and minerals, such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc. In short, it is a more nutritious plant protein than popular alternatives such as soy, pea, chia or flax.
  2. Hemp absorbs more readily than soy or pea protein. Due to its high protein biological value, hemp has higher dietary absorption rate (87%)when compared to soy (74%) and Pea (64%) proteins. This means that your body can use almost all of the amino acids in hemp protein for important bodily functions, such as repair and maintenance.
  3. Hemp is a high-return crop. Hemp is an incredibly resilient, versatile and dependable agricultural crop.  It grows more quickly than traditional crops, with two to three growing cycles per year depending on climate. What’s more, profit margins can be almost twice as high as staple crops like soy, making hemp a wise financial choice from all points of view.
  4. Hemp is a non-GMO alternative. Wellness-focused consumers usually prefer to consume organically-grown foods whenever possible. And while it’s nearly impossible to find a non-GMO source of soy in America, non-GMO hemp is abundant. Hemp has been shown to be naturally resistant to many pests, diseases and fungi, which is fortunate since pesticides are not currently approved for use on U.S. hemp crops. This makes U.S. hemp an affordable and abundant source of clean, organic plant protein.
  5. Hemp is sustainable. It uses less water than traditional crops, and returns more nutrients to the ground. This allows soil to replenish itself, and can reduce both erosion and deforestation. Hemp thrives in smaller spaces and can grow in different types of soils and climates. And, importantly, because hemp can be used for both industrial purposes and consumption, it’s possible to use the entire plant, eliminating waste.

While hemp protein is readily available in seed form, accelerated R&D – ideally in partnership with consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) – will be necessary to deconstruct and reformulate hemp as a more versatile compound, comparable to the soy protein isolate used in so many meat replacements today. Crop geneticists  must engage with food companies early in the process to review their market research, understand their needs and co-create a taste, texture and nutritional profile that consumers will want to buy.

In parallel, because soy protein production currently out yields hemp by 2x, ROI remains a hurdle. Our geneticists are applying learnings from our innovations in other nutritional crops including soy, wheat and rice to breed new hemp varieties with a higher protein yield per acre.

For these reasons and more, it’s an opportune time for bioscience companies to step up research and development of hemp’s untapped potential as a superior source of nutritional protein so it can be marketed to CPGs and consumers as the versatile, valuable plant-based ingredient we know it to be.

* Source: The Good Food Institute

Randy ShultzRandy Shultz

Randy Shultz

Randy Shultz, Chief Technology Officer, Arcadia Biosciences has 20 years of experience in plant science and agricultural biotechnology. Before joining Arcadia, he served as director of R&D and senior director of R&D strategy at Inari Agriculture. As the global crop lead, Shultz played an instrumental role building and scaling Inari’s R&D platform and developing a foundational intellectual property estate. Previously, Shultz led numerous scientific production teams at Monsanto (now Bayer Crop Science), including their Genome Editing Platform team.

“Since joining Arcadia last year, it has been rewarding to apply my experience in plant breeding and genomics to the improvement of a previously uncharted crop like hemp,” said Shultz. “It’s an honor to accept this new role building out a disruptive technology platform for Arcadia that holds such promise for growers, businesses and consumers alike.”

Shultz received his Ph.D. in functional genomics from North Carolina State University and his B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has authored over a dozen patents and publications.

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