Passion, patience and protein
What does hemp food bring to mind?
When Hemp Foods Australia founder, Paul Benhaim, discovered hemp as a food choice in the early 90s during his global travels, he had his own preconceived ideas.
“In Canada I was introduced to someone who knew all about hemp,” Paul says, recalling a tale from his early 20s. “I met a guy who was a long-haired hippie smoking six-foot bongs showing me around his hemp store.”
Paul – who had developed a passion for nutritional foods after living with local communities on the Mekong River and learning about permaculture and Tibetan medicine in the Himalayas – was perplexed.
“Why did my friends introduce me to this guy?” he thought. “I knew you could smoke it. I even knew you could make paper from it. But when he offered me a hemp snack bar, I said, ‘I don’t want to get high’. And then he explained the nutritional benefits of omega 3, omega 6 and super high proteins that were digestible, and I thought, ‘This is a really interesting idea’.”
So began a passion that has directed decades of Paul’s life, and from 2018 set him up as the non-executive director of ASX-listed company, Elixinol Wellness, the Hemp Foods Australia parent company.
Today, Hemp Foods Australia is run by general manager Felipe Favaro, from its factory in the Bangalow Industrial Estate with 20 employees. Its products range includes hulled hemp seeds, hemp protein powders, hemp oils, hemp spreads, as well as its Sativa skincare range.
In 2022, the product range is scheduled to double, adding protein bars and powders. Hemp has hit the mainstream, with the business now supplying supermarket giants Woolworths and Costco, and enjoying export success into Japan and South Korea. Another business focus this year is to work with more hemp growers in Northern Rivers, with most supply coming from Tasmanian farmers.
It’s been 10 years for both the factory site and for Felipe’s employment in the business (Feilpe started his career in finance in Brazil). But ten years ago in Australia it was not legal to consume hemp as food; it was only legalised in 2017. The business kept producing this nutritious food source, and sold it as skin lotion or for garden use (Paul tells of a politician travelling to Bangalow to congratulate him on an export award, chomping into a hemp bar for a photo opportunity before being warned off by his political advisor for the illegal act).
Felipe is excited about the opportunities ahead. “About 7 out of 10 people probably don’t know you can eat hemp and that it’s highly nutritious,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go, we are in the beginning of the industry, which is really positive.”
For Paul, who was invited by business partners to come to Australia from the UK in 1999 to help establish a hemp foods industry, Hemp Foods Australia is a success story that’s been a long-time coming (his original partners gave up waiting in the early 2000s).
In that time, Paul has continued his scientific study and research of hemp and written nine books on topics as diverse as hemp food recipes, to guides on using hemp as a fuel or biodiesel, as a sustainable bioplastic, to build a house or for use in textiles. He also founded and is now chair of the board for Hemp Plastic, which produces bioplastics.
With hemp taking only 100 days to grow and being biodegradable, Paul expects hemp is about to have its day. “We’ve been interested in sustainability in everything we do. It’s up to all of us in the small daily choices we make. Choosing a natural product like hemp is a gateway to personal, national and ultimately global sustainability.”