1997: The State of Hemp Foods

Here is a clip from the 1997 documentary “The Hempen Road” by Dave Olson, featuring Eric Zima (Zima Foods) and Todd Dalotto (Hungry Bear):

In 1997, the hempseed food industry was in its quaint infancy. “Hippies making food in their kitchens” would not be an uncharitable description for the most part. None of these were started by established food processing professionals pivoting to hemp, or made in fancy manufacturing plants (except the corn chips). None were perishable or frozen, nor had wide or mass-market distribution across the U.S. or Canada. They were mostly just whole-seed snacks made by hempsters for hempsters, sold at fairs and in local health food stores and hemp shops. The lack of hairnets, masks, and gloves in these clips is revealing.

While Eric and Todd are featured here there were many others doing similar foods, such as Chris Bennett (Mama Indica’s), Kathleen Chippi (Heavenly Hemp), Lenda Hand (Humboldt Hemp Foods), among others. They were making seed snacks, corn chips, baking mixes, and the like. Note that these clips from the film were a year or two before Nutiva and Manitoba Harvest even started!

This was the environment I entered in 1994 when introducing the first perishable hemp food, HempRella, and the first frozen hemp food, Hempeh Burger. Both were quickly in thousands of stores coast-to-coast in the U.S. and Canada. Both were made with whole hempseed in established professional food factories in Wisconsin and Oregon, respectively.

HempRella was a logical line extension for an infamous 11-year-old award-winning company known for innovation, after TofuRella in 8-oz packages, 5-pound bulk, and shred, TofuRella Slices, RiceRella, RiceRella Slices, AlmondRella, Zero-FatRella, and VeganRella. Our Rella Good Cheese Company products were the best-selling in the U.S. cheese alternatives category. The trade buyers understood that logic, as well as the fact that they were made in actual food factories like our other Rellas and would get the usual great sales support with advertising, PR, promotions, and in-store demos.

A start-up would not have been able to leverage its (non-existent) history to get hemp foods quickly on thousands of natural food store and supermarket shelves, and by 1997 we already had a 17-year history of innovating new foods to the food market, including the first vegan restaurant in California and the first vegan egg-nog.

And now also the first shelled hempseed, the first hemp cheese, and the first hemp burger. And not just any hemp burger, to this day the only hemp food ever with an FDA-legal health claim (for preventing heart disease), plus vegan, keto-friendly, organic, and popular with carnivores and vegans alike. Made with real food not powders, it was hearty and filling.

Then in 1996 a revolution in hemp food happened: commercialization of shelled hempseed, freeing the nutritious inner fruit from the tyranny of its non-nutritive fibrous shell. Consider the difference between eating a handful of whole sunflower seeds and shelled; it’s that dramatic of an advance. Within one generation shelled hempseed would become 90% of Canadian hemp and hemp’s first billion-dollar segment.

As the first in the space by years I got the choice of the best brand name: Hemp Nut, since yes botanically it is considered a nut or fruit. It was so obviously the best name for this new material that not one but two hemp associations demanded the trademark. It was a brazen shakedown designed to get my trademark for free to benefit competitors like Nutiva, Kenex, and Woody Harrelson’s Tierra Madre, which never actually sold anything before it closed its doors after helping HIA kill the hemp food market for 2.5 years over a lie. Tierra Madre’s grand vision was to introduce aseptic hemp milk, a product I developed years earlier and could have given them plus plug it into my sales and distribution network, thus getting it on thousands of shelves quickly. “Co-opetition” instead of what they chose, competition. Chest-beating useless adversarial postures are just another drawback of letting lawyers run businesses; a hammer sees only nails, a lawyer sees only litigation and threats.

It was all a tempest in a teapot anyway, as the name Hemp Nut was so “generic” that today you call it Hemp Hearts, and every package nevertheless must state “shelled hempseed” or “hulled hempseed” regardless.

Jealous competitors used HIA and NAIHC to try to sabotage hemp’s first sophisticated food brand, eventually resulting in the unfortunate lawsuit against DEA for trying to legalize 98% of all hemp products (no max THC), which killed the hemp food market for years and almost took down Canadian hemp with it. Bad people were rewarded and the good retired.

Video Copyright 1997 Dave Olson