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04/02/2015

The interview: Manitoba Harvest's Mike Fata

Only one per cent of the population is familiar with hemp foods, says CEO

Hemp, long associated with one legal product (rope) and one not (marijuana), is now emerging as a food with some far-out ingredients such as omega-6. Among CPGs pushing the product is Manitoba Harvest in Winnipeg.

The 17-year-old company’s lineup includes hemp oil, hemp protein powder and Hemp Hearts. Mike Fata, Manitoba Harvest’s CEO, has been with the company since it started. Fata (pictured) recently spoke with Canadian Grocer about hemp’s health benefits, the importance of sampling, and overcoming the belief that hemp can make you high.

You’ve pointed out that Manitoba Harvest is a vertically integrated company? What do you mean by that?

We’re the world’s largest hemp food manufacturer to grow, make, and sell our own line of hemp food products. We contract hemp seed direct with farmers. Seed gets delivered to our manufacturing facility in Winnipeg. We control how the product gets made and packaged. Then, we distribute and market the products.

What are some of the products that you sell?

We offer a full range of products, starting with our most popular–Hemp Hearts. We also offer a full lineup of hemp protein powders, hemp oil, and a non-dairy beverage.

So what is a hemp heart?

Hemp Hearts is a branded name for raw shelled hemp seed. Hemp Hearts are the soft inner kernel, or ‘heart’ of the whole hemp seed. It’s where you find most of the nutrients.

How do consumers eat hemp hearts?

One of the best attributes of Hemp Hearts is their versatility. Traditionally, most people simply sprinkle over cereal, yogurt, salad, or pretty much anything. We’re seeing more and more people add them to smoothies and recipes–using Hemp Hearts as an allergen free substitute.

How many stores now carry your products?

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods products can be found in over 7,000 retailers across North America. That includes independent health food stores to major grocery chains, to mass retailers like Costco and Amazon. We’re also expanding our international export market.

What’s been the biggest challenge in selling hemp food products?

It’s cliché, but our biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity. Before you can even speak to products, you must educate on hemp foods and the hemp industry overall. We estimate that only 1% of the population is familiar with hemp foods so there’s huge opportunity.

Do people still ask whether eating hemp will make them high?

We’re getting less and less of that. Getting our products on shelf as meant greater acceptance. More media attention and influential fans like health practitioners and chefs, has helped educate people, too.

OK, so what are some of the health benefits of hemp foods?

Protein and omegas. Hemp foods are a complete plant-based protein. Hemp foods are rich in omega 3 and omega-6. Hemp foods also contain many micronutrients like magnesium, iron and zinc.

Speaking about omega-6, your press kit mentions that hemp contains a type of omega-6 called GLA. What’s GLA and why is it good to eat?

GLA stands for gamma linolenic acid. GLA has been shown to help with hormone balancing, skin & hair health, inflammation, and blood pressure among other benefits. Hemp is the only food source of GLA.

Chia vs. hemp. Why might hemp be better?

For us it’s less about either-or, and more about super seeds in general. Hemp seeds, aka Hemp Hearts, contain twice the amount of protein and a broader spectrum of Omegas. Hemp Hearts are also delicious and extremely versatile.

You do a lot of sampling. Why?

Education and sampling are our major marketing initiatives. We believe once people try hemp foods, they will fall in love. This year we will give out over four million samples through in-store demos, community events, and practitioners like dietitians and trainers.

Any new products planned that you can tell us about?

We’re consistently working on new and exciting products to meet growing consumer demand. This spring-summer watch for hemp snack options like Hemp Heart Bites. Fan-favorite Hemp Hearts in a convenient, bite-size crunchy snack. We can’t wait for people to try it.