Plant-Based Protein Watchlist: Hemp Is a Rising Star in the Market

Zoom in on the history of industrial hemp, explore its role in the EU’s food industry today, and discover some of its diverse applications.

The 21st Century Puts Industrial Hemp on the Map

Applications and uses of hemp can be traced back over 3,000 years. In the Middle Ages in Europe, hemp was primarily cultivated for the production of durable fibres to produce textiles, such as canvas for boat sails, sacks, and ropes. In China, on the other hand, where it was used in oils and teas as a pain reliever, hemp’s cultivation is rooted in medicinal practices

In the 20th century, due to the presence of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—commonly associated with marijuana consumption—the cultivation of hemp seeds and the production of hemp-based products remained limited across the globe. It was not until the early 1990s’ that member states of the European Union began legalising industrial hemp cultivation. At this point, industrial hemp was still primarily used for the production of animal feed in Europe.  

Today it is estimated that only around 40% of production goes toward animal feed while farmers and manufacturers now gear a whopping 60% towards the production of foods for humans. Furthermore, due to historically widespread limitations restricting the cultivation of hemp plants for the production of fibres, the seeds themselves remained a mere by-product in farming for many years. 21st-century market research unveils a significant shift in the cultivation of hemp plants in recent decades—not for the plant itself but for its seeds and flowers. From 2010 to 2013 alone, the European hemp industry observed a staggering 92% increase in the continent’s overall production of hemp seeds (from 6,000 tonnes to 11,500 tonnes).

Over the years, manufacturers have also faced the challenge of eliminating consumer confusion around the European Union’s classification of cannabidiol (CBD) as a so-called ‘novel food’ versus hemp seeds’ legality. The European Commission (EC) defines ‘novel foods’ as “[any] food that had not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997.” The EC clarifies the regulations surrounding the plant’s cultivation further as follows: “The cultivation of Cannabis sativa L. varieties is permitted provided they are registered in the EU’s ‘Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species’ and the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content does not exceed 0.2 % (w/w). Some products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant or plant parts such as seeds, seed oil, hemp seed flour, defatted hemp seed have a history of consumption in the EU and therefore, are not novel.”


The Rising Demand for Industrial Hemp in the Food Industry

Today, Europe accounts for around 25% of hemp crops—approximately 40% of which are cultivated in France—around the world. Due to France’s substantial hemp production between 1993-2015, experts estimate that the vast majority of the hemp seeds currently circulating the agriculture industry originate from France. Further high-volume hemp farming countries in Europe include Estonia, The Netherlands, Romania, Lithuania, and Italy.

According to CBI Insights, Grandview Research estimates that the global market for plant-based protein supplements will grow by approximately 8% annually until 2025. This number surpasses the predicted 6.3% growth of the total protein market, thereby underlining the rising market potential for plant-based proteins, such as hemp protein powder, over animal-based proteins. The industry’s response to increasing consumer demand, fuelled by an ever-increasing awareness of plant-based proteins’ higher nutritional value and lower environmental impact, drives these numbers. 

CBI Insights further highlights organic's growing role and positioning within the plant-based protein sector, “There is a strong market for organic protein powder, especially when marketed to support an active lifestyle or improve general health. Consumers of food supplements are health-conscious. They look for products which support a healthy lifestyle and generally prefer natural or organic products, which they believe to be healthier. As a consequence, many consumers prefer to buy organic protein powder.” A 2017 paper published by the European Industrial Hemp Association revealed that organic hemp seed demand continues to surpass supply. Over the past decade, European manufacturers have often turned to imported hemp seeds from China to fill the local market's persisting supply gaps. Even in 2015, almost 50% of hemp seeds in Europe were imported from abroad.

According to, hemp powder is especially popular amongst vegetarians, vegans, athletes, and bodybuilders. The overall demand, however, is no longer limited to specialty products and stores, and industrial hemp is now finding its way into a wide range of different foods and drinks in large supermarket chains across Europe. Due to the discovery of the hemp plant’s ability to regenerate soil, its versatility, and overall profitability, hemp’s popularity as a crop has also risen amongst farmers. Some industry experts even go as far as to classify this ancient seed as one of the trendiest natural ingredients of the 21st century.


Hemp Is Used in Many Industries

Hemp’s manifold applications have safely positioned it across a wide range of sectors, including food (beverages, snacks, condiments), dietary supplements (powders, capsules), personal care (beauty, health), consumer textiles (clothing, blankets), industrial production (bioplastics, automotive), and more (pet food, household cleaners). In recent years, the food and personal care industries, in particular, have seen an influx in new hemp seed-based protein products. From flours, powders, and oils to deodorants, lotions, and soaps, commercialised hemp is reaching an ever-growing audience of health and environmentally conscious consumers. A comprehensive list of European hemp suppliers and manufacturers is available on the European Industrial Hemp Association’s (EIHA) website.

Purchase wholesale organic hemp protein powder online at foodcircle.

Imagery courtesy of foodcircle and


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