ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Consumer curiosity is pushing hemp to new heights. Cannabidiol, or C.B.D., has skyrocketed in supplement sales in recent years and, along with mushrooms, ashwagandha and probiotics, is one of the hottest ingredients in functional food and beverage products, said Carlotta Mast, senior vice-president of content and insights at New Hope Network.
Associated with various health benefits, such as pain relief and stress reduction, hemp-derived C.B.D. is poised to explode in the consumer packaged goods marketplace. The ingredient includes a host of regulatory and formulation challenges, plus plenty of confusion among retailers and consumers.
At Natural Products Expo West, held March 5-9 in Anaheim, C.B.D. or hemp extract appeared in a vast array of food and beverage products on display, from protein bars to cold-brew coffee to wellness shots.
Weller, a Boulder, Colo.-based brand, is unveiling a range of sparkling waters with zero calories and 25 milligrams of C.B.D. from broad-spectrum hemp extract per serving. The brand also offers a water-soluble C.B.D. drink mix and a line of C.B.D.-infused coconut bites in dark chocolate, caramel and original varieties.
Weller was founded in 2017 by Matt Oscamou, who previously founded and led Frontier Snacks, and John Simmons, founder and chief executive officer of Third Street Chai.
“We found ourselves with the opportunity to start something together and really dive in and change the way consumers are getting C.B.D. and incorporating that into daily routines and diets,” Mr. Oscamou told Food Business News. “We saw the opportunity to do something very different than a tincture or gel cap that has a real clinical feel to it and find ways to let people incorporate into their daily routine, whether it’s a snack in your bag, after your workout or in the middle of the day, or a sparkling water beverage you can drink at any occasion.”
As consumers reduce use of supplements, the opportunity for C.B.D. in food and beverage is significant, and brands are beginning to take notice, Ms. Mast said.
“We surveyed 230 natural and organic brands in January and found that most are currently not selling any hemp or C.B.D. products … but that is expected to change,” Ms. Mast said during a presentation at Expo West. “Sixty-five per cent of the companies we surveyed said they expect to add a hemp or C.B.D. product to their offerings within the next one to two years. This shows a lot of the legacy companies in the industry are planning to move into this space, and there is likely to be much more activity.”
Industrial hemp was legalized in the recent farm bill, but C.B.D. is not a federally approved additive for food and beverage. This past December, the Food and Drug Administration appeared to be pursuing a pathway to legalizing the sale of C.B.D. oil and cannabis compounds in food and beverage, according to F.D.A. commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. The F.D.A. prohibits companies from adding C.B.D. or T.H.C. (the compound that produces psychoactive effects) to food, drinks and supplements, and it prohibits the sale of food, supplements and other products containing C.B.D. across state lines.
Dr. Gottlieb resigned on March 5, creating uncertainty for the near future of C.B.D.
“When we started the company 16 months ago, hemp was still on the controlled substance list,” Mr. Simmons said. “We are focusing on states and regions that don’t have gray areas. We provide our brokers and sales team with a list of state regulations that we keep up to date.
“For example, we speak with our distributors and wholesalers week after week and are constantly updating our shared regulation list with all of our vendor partners and consumers. It’s a moving target; it’s an evolving category. We are incredibly optimistic the F.D.A. will find a pathway for C.B.D./hemp to make its way into food and beverage.”
Another challenge is flavor. Hemp extract features a “very grassy taste and aroma,” said Elizabeth Giannuzzi, co-founder and chief executive officer of Siren Snacks, a San Francisco-based brand of plant-based protein bites that recently added a coconut chocolate chip variety featuring full-spectrum hemp extract.
“We worked to source a very neutral-tasting hemp extract, and also crafted our recipes with bold flavors like coconut and dark chocolate, which can stand up to the earthier hemp flavor,” she said. “Our biggest challenges were around sourcing and finding a reputable, high-quality supplier using organically grown hemp with a clean extraction process. Next, we had to develop a production process and testing protocol so that we could feel confident that our products are delivering an accurate and reliable dose of 5 milligrams of C.B.D. per bite. Finally, there were some regulatory hurdles around serving size.”
Mr. Simmons added, “Dealing with a brand new industry and different processes from suppliers, we take the vetting of our supply and sourcing very seriously, both to ensure we have top-quality product and ingredient going into our products but also to make sure we’re going to have a level of consistency, that if you taste our products two times it’s going to be the same… it’s not wildly different.
“That’s one of the great challenges in this, is you really can’t throw C.B.D. in any food and beverage product and expect the right results. You have to treat it as the unique ingredient that it is.”
Nearly half of U.S. consumers are familiar with C.B.D., and 30% of those have purchased products featuring the cannabinoid, Ms. Mast said. Still, much confusion remains around its effects as well as the difference between full-spectrum hemp extract versus a C.B.D. isolate, Ms. Giannuzzi said.
“We use a full-spectrum hemp extract (containing C.B.D. and other cannabinoids), and oftentimes need to educate our customers on the many health benefits associated with full-spectrum products,” she said. “There is also a lot of confusion around the recommended dose for C.B.D. Our bites have 10 milligrams C.B.D. per serving, but we’ve seen quite a range across different beverages and edible products containing C.B.D.”
Ultimately, food and beverage products containing C.B.D. or hemp extract should still meet consumer expectations for taste, quality and consistency, Mr. Simmons said.
“There’s a lot of people selling C.B.D. products, but they’re all based on assumptions of what the consumer wants,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can predict where the category will end up, but we think consumers are going to help lead the way, and we’re going to listen to them.”