Can Hemp Protein Become a Mainstream Product?

August 11, 2021

Across the globe, there has been a significant rise in the production and consumption of plant-based proteins. This includes hemp protein, currently a relatively niche product, but one that is making its impact felt in the plant-based protein sector. Hemp Benchmarks spoke to hemp food manufacturers and researchers about hemp protein’s characteristics, popularity, and where the market for such products is going.

Late last year, the market research company Euromonitor told CNBC that the global meat substitute sector, including so-called “plant-based meat,” is currently worth $20.7 billion, and is expected to grow to $23.2 billion by 2024. In terms of hemp protein specifically, the Irish-based firm Research and Markets reported in September 2020 that the global hemp protein market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.2% between 2019 and 2024. North America, and the United States in particular, are expected to emerge as major markets for hemp protein, according to the report.

Why is Hemp Protein Popular?

Industry stakeholders say concerns over environmental issues have helped to raise both awareness of and consumer demand for hemp protein. “It is new, novel, and healthy,” Ben Raymond, Director of Research and Development at Kentucky-based Victory Hemp Foods, said in an email to Hemp Benchmarks. “It checks a lot of boxes for consumers that are becoming more and more conscious of where their food was produced, what is in it, and how it affects not only them but the planet.”

Along with other hemp products, Victory manufactures hemp protein concentrates. Hemp protein, according to Raymond, is “not quite mainstream but it’s getting more so every day. The market has changed for sure. We see more interest from brands that are more mainstream as well as increased demand from natural and health focused brands.”

Where Does Hemp Protein Come From?

Hemp protein comes from the hemp seed, or grain. Whole hemp seeds reportedly contain around 20% to 25% protein, along with oil (fats), fiber, carbohydrates, and some trace minerals. Hemp seed is often cold-pressed to extrude the oil. That process creates so-called “hemp cake” or “meal,” which has a higher protein content.

“If you look at the hemp cake it’s about 33% protein by weight,” Jim House, professor in the Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba, told Hemp Benchmarks. House said hemp cake’s protein content compares well to what is found in legumes like peas, beans, or lentils, while also containing higher amounts of essential fats and nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

While protein content is important, House noted that hemp seed also contains many essential amino acids; the building blocks of protein. There are some deficiencies in hemp protein, such as a limit in the amount of the amino acid lysine. However, according to House, those nutritional deficiencies can be addressed by mixing hemp protein with that from other sources.

“That’s something we call ‘protein complementation,’” he explained, “a blending of protein sources to produce a high-quality protein. So you look for a source that’s high in lysine, and an example of that would be your pulses, like pea protein or lentil protein that tend to be high in lysine but low in sulfur amino acids. Whereas hemp happens to have a lot of sulfur amino acids.”

How Does Hemp Protein Compare to Animal Protein?

While hemp and other plants can produce highly-digestible and easily-absorbed proteins for humans, House acknowledges the advantage animal proteins have in efficiency and overall nutritional value. That is because, he said, animal proteins are “going to make another animal. They were an animal, or they’re going to be converted into an animal. Milk, egg; they’re basically going to be converted into another animal. So those proteins will reflect the balance of what is needed for making body proteins, like muscle.”

However, as Ben Raymond at Victory Hemp Foods noted, plant proteins “usually require far less resources to produce and have really closed the functionality and flavor gap in the last few years.“

How Are Hemp Proteins Developed?

Not all hemp proteins are the same. “It depends on the technology,” said Roi Wurgaft, CEO of Wurgaft Consulting and Development in Colorado. His firm provides consulting and business development services in the plant-based protein and oil extraction sector. He is co-owner of a research-and-development facility in Oregon, as well as an advisor for Nepra Foods, a Colorado company that is producing hemp-based food protein.

hemp grain
Photo: Victory Hemp Foods

Some hemp proteins, he told Hemp Benchmarks, “can have a significant ‘greeny’ taste, but there are technologies that are used in order to remove those flavors to make the product better.” Among those technologies, he said, are processes that can further isolate and concentrate hemp proteins to create a material with about an 80% to 90% protein content. That material, Wurgaft said, “can be thereafter functionalized to become soluble, to create viscosity, and to be used in much more advanced food products that require not only the protein but also the functionality of the protein.”

An example of how hemp proteins are developed is Victory Hemp Foods’ V-70 Hemp Heart Protein and its V-One Hemp Heart Oil. Ben Raymond said those products were created after several years of research. The “V-Line” products, he added, are “light in color, bland, 70% protein and work great in all sorts of food and beverage applications,” including dressings, dips, spreads, cosmetics, and personal care products.

What is the Future for the Hemp Protein Industry?

There are signs that the hemp protein market is gaining momentum. In late July, Protein Industries Canada – an industry-led, non-profit organization – announced a partnership between four companies to help build on the use of pea and hemp in plant-based food and ingredients. “By focusing on an established protein crop, like peas, and one that’s still growing in popularity, like hemp, they’re helping diversify our sector even further – an important step in opening new markets and establishing the country as a leader in meeting consumer plant-based food demands,” Protein Industries Canada CEO Bill Greuel said in a press release.

For his part, Roi Wurgaft believes hemp protein has enormous potential in the U.S. “There are still gaps in terms of the price that those crops currently offer,” he said, “but analysis that we have made about getting into a certain mass of production and a certain yield per hectare, [shows that] once getting to those goals … hemp protein can very well compete at an affordable price to the food industry.”

That enthusiasm for growing the hemp protein industry in the U.S. is echoed by Ben Raymond at Victory, which recently raised $4.5 million to expand its production capacity, according to Louisville Business First. “The United States is the world’s agricultural powerhouse,” he said. “We have the population, arable acreage, academic and corporate knowledge, and resources to quickly improve hemp genetics, agronomics, processing, and ultimately scale hemp grain production quickly.”

“I don’t see any signs of decrease in the plant-based sector,” noted Jim House at the University of Manitoba. “So long as the supply chain remains stable, there’s tremendous opportunity. “

Hemp Industries Association Midwest Hemp Council National Hemp Association