In a tweet, the celebrated chef Raymond Blanc suggested the outbreak, now declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, presents an opportunity for us to “reconnect, reinvent” and “grow our food”.
Enthusiasts for hemp – a plant that entwines with these values of provenance and recoupling with nature – go a step further. Rebekka Shaman, chair of the British Hemp Alliance, which lobbies to promote the UK hemp industry, believes sales of CBD (an ingredient extracted from hemp) could be set for a lift as people are attracted to CBD's immune system-boosting qualities.
In Europe, CBD is classified as novel food and therefore requires pre-market authorisation. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is yet to approve any CBD ingredients. Products have nevertheless made their way onto shelves. In the UK, for instance, from the Food Standards Authority has said manufacturers need to apply for novel food approval by 2021. Hemp and related products, meanwhile, are not novel according to regulators because there is evidence to show a history of consumption before May 1997, when the Novel Foods regulation came into force.
Meanwhile, UK farmers can harvest hemp seeds, which are used in food supplements, but cannot take oil from the flower, where CBD is found in high concentrations. CBD products in the UK are therefore made with imported oil.
And while hemp seeds are highly nutritious and health-boosting (according to data from the USDA they are a complete source of protein providing all nine essential amino acids, and are also a source of essential fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid, an omega 3, and also vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium), CBD, claims Shaman, has the better immune-boosting potential. The current regulatory landscape, therefore, is a ‘crazy thing’ at a time when ‘we need to boost our immune systems more than ever’, she said.
She added that the current regulatory landscape “no longer serves 21st century living, where we need it the most because our immune systems are so corrupted because we don't have those endocannabinoids in our system that we desperately need. We are not able to utilise the power of the hemp plant because it's considered a controlled substance."
There is 'zero evidence' that hemp or CBD improve wellness or health
Other members of the CBD community were keen to distance themselves from suggestions that CBD could be set to be boosted by coronavirus. Dr Andy Yates is science lead at the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry, a new industry body which says it is committed to promoting a ‘safe, legal and well-regulated’ CBD market in the UK.
He told FoodNavigator: “There is currently absolutely no evidence that CBD can play any role in altering the course of coronavirus (CORVID-19) disease and I would strongly urge the CBD industry to stay far away from making any suggestion, however subtle, that it does. During a time of serious national and international challenges our industry needs to show leadership and a strong moral compass and do the right thing. If companies are interested in researching the potential anti-inflammatory or other effects of CBD in coronavirus or any other disease state then they should make the investment in doing the proper research to generate data and publish that data in peer-reviewed scientific or clinical journals for others to assess and build upon.”
‘In times of crisis, people turn to comfort foods’
Mark Driscoll, founder of sustainability consultancy Tasting the Future is another hemp enthusiast. He agreed there's increasing attention in the area thanks to its health and sustainability credentials.
"I definitely think health is at the forefront of everyone's minds at the moment and was the general trend even before coronavirus,” he told FoodNavigator. “I think it’s only going to raise the attention and profile of the role food plays in the transmission of new and existing viruses and make people even more health conscious."
Henry Braham is founder of UK-based Good Hemp, which makes hemp-based foods and ingredients. Hemp is ‘brilliant for the immune system’, he contended, as it’s packed with Omega-3, 6 and 9, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins.
But he’s not convinced the current coronavirus disease currently sweeping across the globe will do him many favours. “In reality, sugary things will sell. In any times of crisis or recession people revert to sweetened and comfort foods. The logic is right: you should be eating as much hemp food as you can to build your immune system, but logic is separated from emotion.”
Gut health boost?
Clare Thornton-Wood, registered dietitian and the Association of UK Dietitians spokesperson, suggested gut health products were more likely better poised to gain in the current climate.
"People are better off boosting their immunity,” she told FoodNavigator. “Most of your immune system is in your gut. If you've got a healthy gut, then you're more likely to have a strong immune system. There is some evidence for probiotics; there's better links to probiotics then there are to CBD.”
Ultimately, though, her message is to beware of the current myths, conspiracy theories and unfounded claims. According to Harvard Health Publishing, for example, the current false claims doing the rounds on social media as a means to ward off coronavirus include taking oregano oil, vitamin C and D and avoiding cold drinks, milkshakes, ice cream and spicy foods.
“The underlying message is that if you have a varied diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and soluble fibre then at the end of the day that's the best thing you can do to boost your immunity,” she said.