Cannabis sativa L. is a plant with multiple faces. Industrial hemp was bred to contain very little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Under the premise that the THC content does not exceed 0.2 % of the plant and without prejudice to other national regulations, the plant and their parts are accepted food sources in the EU (Novel Food Catalogue, 2018). Nowadays, hemp is used as a source of fiber mainly for non-food purposes. Hemps seeds, seed proteins and seed oils became common food ingredients. However, it must be noted that national regulations may restrict the use of industrial hemp in food.
The situation is far more complicated when it comes to medical cannabis. The medical cannabis plant or its plant parts, including its secreted resin (”hashish”) and its main constituent tetrahydrocannabinol (THCs), are classified as Narcotic Drugs and thus are not legally marketed unless a specific permission is granted. Consequently, the cultivation, production, trade, import, export, sale, purchase and possession of all plant parts of cannabis is illegal (when without permission).
Until now, there is no harmonized EU law on cultivation or authorized cannabis-based drugs. Cannabis-based medicines like Sativex and Marinol are only available in some EU member states but not throughout the entire EU. Since 2016, medicinal products containing CBD are allowed in the German market but only as prescription drugs. Across the Atlantic, the FDA just approved the first cannabis derived drug, Epidiolex from GW Research Ltd, which contains CBD to treat serious forms of childhood epilepsy.
Whereas some EU countries have decriminalized the cultivation of cannabis for personal medicinal purposes, like The Netherlands and the Czech Republic (up to 5 plants), the cultivation of cannabis for recreational purposes remains illegal all over Europe.
Very recently, cannabidiol (CBD), an innocuous structural relative of THC attracted a lot of interest. Since CBD does not have the psychotropic potential attributed to THC, there are discussions about whether or not CBD concentrates are suitable as food ingredients. In addition, food products with CBD levels that are higher than the CBD levels in the plant – which would include cannabis extracts – fall under the Novel Food Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 and require a pre-market authorization. A respective application for trans-cannabidiol is currently being evaluated by EFSA. Once the authorization is granted, all CBD extracts that meet the specifications of the authorized product can be generically used in food supplements for adults with a daily intake of up to 130 mg or 1.86 mg/kg body weight. The outcome of this evaluation and the further decision process in the European Commission is impatiently awaited but it is impossible to predict whether or not CBD will be authorized as a food ingredient.
The cannabis drug and food market is expected to massively change in the next couple of years. A recent report states that, as Europe has a population size of over 742 million people (more than double of USA and Canada together), an annual GDP of over €15 trillions in 2017 and a total annual healthcare expenditure of €2.3 trillions, Europe could be the largest cannabis market in the world.
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Other important determinants mentioned for the NHR claim effect towards consumer preferences and purchase behavior were linked with the product itself but the results were inconclusive. However, the authors concluded that the effect of a product with claims was dependent of the product perceived healthiness and this was also strongly dependent on the interaction between the product and the nutrients in the NHR claim (e.g. NHR claim about omega-3 lead to higher preference for a fish product than for bread which would be better advertised with a claim about fiber). Moreover, the effect of NHR claims on nutritional unfavorable products could potentially mislead the consumer by making the product appear healthy (e.g. vitamins and minerals added to sugary breakfast cereals).
It is important to build trust with consumers and not provide misleading information. Food business operators should make sure that they provide consumers with meaningful nutritional or health claims on their products. We can support you and develop a tailor-made claim strategy and roadmap for your product. Get in touch today!