Cannabis is not a Novel Food (part 1/2)

Author: Ties van de Laar PhD

Is cannabis a novel food?

Is cannabis a novel food? This question is not as simple as it seems at first glance and is currently causing quite a debate between various national food authorities and companies working with cannabis (or hemp). The center of this discussion is whether there is a so-called ‘history of consumption’ of cannabis in the EU or not. This blog is split in two parts, first we will investigate why such a history of consumption is so important, and in part two we will look at some of the evidence available that shows cannabis or hemp has a rich history throughout the entire world.

EU novel food legislation around hemp

Why is the historical use of cannabis interesting? And why is this such a hot debate between food authorities and food producers? To answer this question, we need to dive into some European Union legislation. In 1997 the EU introduced legislation regarding something called ‘novel foods’ (1) (2) (updated in 2015 to its current form), this legislation was meant to make it clear that foods that were never consumed before 1997 in the EU should be tested to ensure their safety, as they are ‘novel’. The basis of this legislation is a principle called ‘presumption of safety’, which means that if a food has a history of consumption in the EU, that most likely means that it is safe to consume.

A good example of this is coffee (3), it has a very long, rich history of consumption both in- and outside of the EU. As such, coffee is considered safe. We have been consuming coffee for such an extended period of time, that if it was bad for our health we would have known by now. However, a food producer could take a part of a coffee plant, that is not the coffee bean, and add it to tea (so called coffee cherry tea (3)). This would be considered a novel food, as there would be no history of consumption within the EU to ensure the safety of such a drink (3). This means that for such a tea drink additional safety tests are required to prove it would be okay to sell this drink on the European market. However, this does not mean that anything that sounds ‘new’ is immediately classified as a novel food. For example, making an extract of something with a long history of use is usually not considered a novel food. White coffee, which is coffee extracted from unroasted coffee beans, is not considered a novel food (3).

The reason the historical use of hemp or cannabis is thus interesting is that it underlies the presumption of safety. If food producers can demonstrate that hemp has a long history of consumption, they prove that hemp is not a novel food. Now you might wonder why this debate is only starting now, while this regulation is from 1997? That is because at the time, hemp was not considered a novel food, all parts of the hemp plant had a long history of use according to EU documents. This meant that extracts from the hemp plant like CBD oil were considered safe to use and not novel. Only recently (January 2019) was the entry for hemp changed (4), creating confusion as to what parts and what food products are now all of the sudden novel.

About the author 

Ties completed his PhD in Soft Matter physics and Food Process Engineering at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He now works at Becanex as a Senior Researcher, where amongst other things, he is responsible for novel food applications.

Bibliography

  1. European Union. EC 258/97. Brussels : European Union, 1997.
  2. European Union. EU 2015/2283. Brussels : European Union, 2015.
  3. [Online] https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/novel_food/catalogue/search/public/index.cfm - coffea sp..
  4. [Online] https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/novel-foods#cannabidiol-cbd-products.