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Growing pains end for hemp products

Winnng acceptance: An industrial hemp plant in Australia. Hemp smoothies and hemp-laced muffins may appear on shop shelves and cafe menus by the year's end following a decision to legalise the cannabis plant's seeds for human consumption. After rejecting proposals to amend the Food Standards Code as far back as 2002, state and federal health ministers have decided hemp - the same species as marijuana - is safe to eat. "The standard will take effect six months after it has been gazetted and ministers acknowledged that there is still a range of New Zealand and State and Territory legislation that currently prohibits the sale of low-THC hemp seeds as a food which will need to be amended," said a communique last week from health ministers at the Forum of Food Regulation. Industrial hemp, unlike marijuana, has extremely low levels of the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). But ministers had feared it would affect roadside drug testing and make them appear soft on drugs. Health food shops are skirting the rules by selling hemp oil as "moisturiser" and seeds as a "body scrub" ingredient on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis. Paul Benhaim, chief executive of Hemp Foods Australia, which only sells "external use only" products in Australia but exports food products, says the news is fantastic. Benhaim has been lobbying governments for 17 years. He expects his business, which dominates 80 per cent of the domestic market, to quadruple in the next year. He has been selling hemp oil as a moisturiser, but will now be able to sell it as food. "We're talking with supermarkets, juice shops, delicatessens about using hemp seeds in all sorts of products, from breads to drinks," he says. "In five years' time, hemp could be as common as soy, chia and flaxseed because it's nutritious." Food Standards Australia and New Zealand gave its approval to lift the ban in March after concluding that hemp was safe for human consumption when it contained no more than the maximum levels of THC. The food standards regulator found hemp seeds were a good source of vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. FSANZ proposed amendments in 2002, but ministers were concerned about the effect on roadside drug testing and sending mixed messages to the public. Their about-turn was triggered by a Swinburne University study that found it was highly unlikely the consumption of low-THC hemp foods would result in positive THC readings on oral fluid, urine or blood tests. It's understood that labels on hemp foods must not allude to psychoactive effects or use the words "cannabis" and "marijuana". Products may hit shelves as soon as November. Industrial hemp has THC levels of about 0.03 per cent, while marijuana can contain up to 30 per cent. "You can smoke a whole field of industrial hemp and not get high, maybe a headache," Benhaim says. Dr Trent Watson, a Dieticians Association of Australia spokesman, says 30 grams of hemp seed, or about one tablespoon, provided about 11 grams of protein. An egg has about six grams of protein. The Hemp Health & Innovation Expo will be held at Rosehill Gardens, Sydney, May 27-28.

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