Bringing food science into the cannabis, hemp edibles conversation

August 2, 2017

Cannabis and hemp edibles

In January 2018, with California joining existing legalized states, 21% of the U.S. adult population will be able to consume edible cannabis products legally.[i] The fact that 1-in-5 adults will be able to purchase cannabis-containing foods and beverages by simply visiting a local storefront merchant means that the industry has surpassed its tipping point. Supplying the new demand is a food sector that did not exist five years ago, but is currently supplying more than 40 million servings a year[ii] with an outlook to produce 600+ million servings by 2021. It is simply astonishing that this activity is taking place with only informal and peripheral participation by food science organizations.

We come to this unenviable position due to an 80-year series of policy decisions and laws, that while originally were intended to reduce social harm, were not drafted with scientific input and debate. They have instead created a dark blot of science “censorship” effectively limiting studies to the abuses of cannabis[iii], and, by association, limiting research on non-psychoactive hemp. Only in the last five years has the federal government relaxed some rules on hemp and cannabis, leaving it up to individual states to create well-regulated markets. Now, with demand growing and cannabis/hemp food start-ups opening daily, policy makers and producers are seeking guidance.

In a short span of time there have been several surprising realizations about the cannabis market, including:

  • A carefully regulated, legal market works. Experience in Colorado and Washington shows that cannabis products can be kept away from juvenile buyers while allowing informed use by adults. Consumers are benefiting from clear labeling without the risks of an illicit drug transaction. Notably, the legal market for recreational cannabis undercuts the black market and its associated social harms and law enforcement costs. In the case of non-THC-containing hemp, university research is underway, and consumers are already purchasing more than $155 million of hemp-based foods[iv] and supplements yearly.

  • The average cannabis consumer is not who we expected. Sixty-three percent of cannabis consumers are over the age of 30. In fact, the average consumer is age 37, has a personal income approximately 50% higher than the median, and uses cannabis only 3–4 times per month.[v] The typical hemp consumer is less well defined, yet is interested in the health benefits of non-psychoactive compounds such as CBD oils ($130 million in annual sales[vi]).

  • The new consumer is not smoking. Purchases of cannabis edibles, extracts, and beverages are growing 2–3 times faster than dried flower; they are expected to make up 50% of a $20 billion market by 2021.[vii] Although specific consumer studies are pending, edibles appear to give their buyers more options, better control, and more discretion when consuming. Perhaps nearly 30-years of anti-smoking (tobacco) campaigns are showing results in the new legalized cannabis markets.

There are still many unanswered questions and unknowns in these burgeoning industries. Testing, consumer preferences, health and wellness claims, edibles formulations, ingredient interactions, manufacturing techniques, and packaging methods are all in their infancy.

Helping answer many of these questions is where IFT members can create solutions and share expertise. IFT’s establishment of the Legalized Cannabis and Hemp Edibles interest group on IFT Connect (now active), provides members and professionals an open forum to share knowledge and expertise, promote innovation, connect, and hopefully resolve many of the questions in these nascent industries. We hope to reach the group’s first anniversary with strong collaborations creating science-based guidance to help the industry and direct policy.

Creating networks, promoting science, and being an objective voice is part of IFT’s mission. IFT professionals have a unique opportunity to help shape a new industry, which doesn’t happen too often. I look forward to connecting with you in the Legalized Cannabis and Hemp Edibles group on IFT Connect.

Francis BoeroFrancis J. Boero, PhD, CFS
Managing Partner
Gavenum LLC

[i] The 21% estimate comes from the population of those aged 21+ from the states with legalized recreational cannabis: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts.

[ii] From , ,, As of mid2016, Colorado MED (Marijuana Enforcement Division) records showed a unit rate of more than 8 million edible units sold annually. Colorado represents only $1.3 billion of $6.7 billion 2016 market, or 19%. Using proportionality, the current production rate is on the order of 40 million units.

Growth factors estimated by BDS analytics provide the following cascade: Edibles are expected to grow from 12% of market to ~50%, a factor of 4.2. Similarly, the market size will grow from $6.7 billion to ~$22 billion, a factor of 3.5. Acknowledging that a growth of 4.2 x 3.5 ~ 15x would underestimate units due to market share changes we can take 15 x 40 million = 600 million as an approximation of 2021 production.

[iii] An early review of studies permitted by DEA show a selection bias for abuse. lists 600 cannabis studies, all associated with the term “heavy” use (daily or more than once per day). In contrast, only 30 publications exist for edible use. As the Shafer study in 1972 and the report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1895 state, heavy users are rare (even though they are highly visible and smell distinctly…). By deduction, the use effects of average use (3 times/month) are poorly known. The analogous situation would be to understand the 6,000-year-old wine industry solely by studying acute alcoholics.

[iv] See Hemp Industry Association$688Million.html

[v] See all the public reports. The income figures were recently released by BDS analytics The median California income is approximately $61,000 annually.

[vi] Hemp Industry Association, ibid.

[vii] BDS Analytics, 2016 annual executive summary

You can comment by signing in through your Facebook, Twitter, or Google account. Or you can create a Disqus login, which will enable you to receive discussion alerts on this post.

Subscribe to
The Weekly Newsletter

Published every Wednesday, The Weekly Newsletter delivers news on food regulations, nutrition, food safety, scientific research, food company acquisitions, and IFT and member activities!