Europe ‘dynamic’ for CBD food innovation but legal hurdles remain

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

The future of hemp foods in the EU remains uncertain ©iStock/Yarygin
The future of hemp foods in the EU remains uncertain ©iStock/Yarygin
Global demand for foods containing hemp or CBD is expanding and levels of innovation in the European region have been ‘dynamic’. However, the future of the market hangs in the balance as regulators consider whether Cannabis sativa L. (industrial hemp) and its derivatives should be granted approval under novel food regulations.

The global industrial hemp market is projected to grow from $4.6bn in 2019 to $26.6bn by 2025, recording a CAGR of 34%, according to Research and Markets.

Growth is being propelled by heightened awareness of the functional properties of hemp and hemp seed oil, which have prompted their integration in different food applications.

In particular, demand is soaring for a key chemical compound - cannabidiol or CBD - which is found in the flowers of the hemp plant. CBD is also found in marijuana but does not contribute to the ‘high’ that is produced by the principle psychoactive constituent of cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

CBD has been touted as beneficial for a wide variety of health issues and is prescribed by various health regulators, inducing the UK National Health Service, as a treatment for epilepsy. In consumer products, it has been liked to a range of health advantages, from the relief of inflation to anxiety and insomnia.

The European Market is seeing a quick rise in demand for CBD-based products. The growing popularity of consumer products containing CBD is due to the belief that it can treat a range of other health problems,”​ Pratik Gurnani, a consultant at Persistence Market Research, told FoodNavigator.

Europe ‘dynamic’ for CBD innovation

“CBD infused products like gummies, coffee, tea [and] sweets are increasingly seen on the top shelves of various stores across the Europe,”​ Gurnani noted.

hemp food oil seeds Crédits egal
Hemp seeds, oil and extracts are increasingly being used in food production ©iStock/egal

According to Persistence’s research, there has been a ‘tremendous’ increase in the number of product launches of various hemp-based foods across the globe over the last decade. “The European region is the most dynamic region for hemp-containing products. During the ten-year period, the region launched the most hemp-containing products in the world and experienced the second-highest retail sales for health and wellness products in the world,”​ Gurnani revealed.

In particular, demand has focused on hemp-infused snacks, ready-to-drink beverages, sauces, seasonings and bakery products, where innovation levels have been highest. And Gurnani predicted that demand is likely to remain strong.

He suggested that food makers should focus their innovation efforts on courting ever more ‘sophisticated’ European consumers. “The niche hemp market is developing swiftly across the European region. Many CBD products can be carefully designed, cleverly marketed and exquisitely packaged aiming the sophisticated consumer.

“The CBD consumption trend is rapidly proliferating through the European market. Manufacturers are promoting new launched as well as innovative products via a fast-rising number of online as well as brick-and-mortar retailers.”

But regulation remains uncertain...

While Gurnani is bullish on the prospects for foods fortified with CBD and other hemp derivatives, he conceded that the regulatory environment in the European Union has resulted in a level of uncertainty for manufacturers.

Currently, EU member states are allowed to grow industrial hemp legally as long as the plant contains less than 0.2% THC.

However, food and beverages containing CBD are classified under the EU’s novel food regulation. In January this year, the European Commission updated the novel food catalogue to include hemp extracts and derived products containing cannabinoids, stating that history of consumption has not been demonstrated.

For hemp or CBD infused foods to be approved by the EU they must apply for pre-market authorisation.

EU European Commission Europe Brussels iStock.com PaulGrecaud
The European Commission will decide whether hemp derivatives can be sold after a safety assessment is completed by EFSA ©iStock/Grecaud

According to a client advisory from law firm Arnold & Porter, while the novel food catalogue ‘is not legally binding’ it is nevertheless used as a reference by ‘many’ national regulators. “This change… may therefore mean that authorities in the Member States refuse to permit supply of foods and food supplements containing cannabinoids, pending formal approval by the European Food Standards Agency under the Novel Food Regulation.”

This will be put to the test when EFSA examines its first application for a CBD-based food.

Cannabis Pharma has already submitted a food supplement containing CBD for adults with a daily intake of up to 130mg. A spokeswoman for EFSA announced at the beginning of June that the European Commission is currently examining the application, which will then be transferred to EFSA.

If the application is successful, the Commission will add CBD as a permitted food/ingredient on the novel foods list within seven months. This decision will specify conditions of use, maximum intakes and labelling requirements.

So, what happens now?

According to Arnold & Porter, manufacturers, distributors and consumers in the EU may find the sale of food containing CBD is ‘disrupted’. The exception will be if the products fall under transitional rules allowing continued sale. CBD food products that were legally on the market prior to January 2018 can continue to be sold as long as an application for novel food approved status is submitted before January 2020, the legal experts explained.

For now at least, it would seem the jury is out on the longer-term prospects for hemp and CBD food products in Europe. The future of the sector hangs on the findings of EFSA and the decision of the Commission.

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