Taking Hemp to Heart
I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA) National Conference. I was presenting about the nutritional value of hemp, what we know, and shedding light on where nutritional research needs to take us.
During the day I met so many amazing people from producers to researchers, who were all stoked about the hemp crop and what it has to offer. Did you know people are building houses with this stuff?! It was so inspiring to see just how versatile hemp really is and how important it is to the farmer, the engineer, the dietitian, and to small companies trying to make it in the food and clothing industries!
A little about hemp. According to the CHTA, the first crop was planted in the early 1600s. In the 1930s it was outlawed, with government officials inaccurately placing it in the same category as other cannabis plants (ie. marajuana). However, hemp is derived from a low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) strain of the cannabis plant (comprised of < 0.03% THC), thus has no psychoactive effects. Because of this, it was re-approved for growth in Canada in 1998.
Nutritionally, I was originally drawn to hemp because it's grown locally throughout the Canadian prairies, and continues to be a non-genetically modified product. I had asked one farmer how hemp has escaped the patenting of Monsanto thus far, and he states quite simply that the hemp industry is still too small and not yet profitable enough (big companies like Monsanto want big, money-making crops). It was very apparent that the people at that conference were all set against a GMO hemp product and as the industry grows, with the right hands involved, we hope to keep it that way.
Of the hemp products available on the market (protein powders, oil, hulled hemp seeds AKA hemp hearts, and hemp flours) I am really most familiar with hemp seeds. I buy mine from a local producer called Hestia at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. As a consumer, I am most interested in supporting hemp, but as a dietitian of course I conducted a literature review to see just what health benefits have been seen with hemp foods. The results were disappointing. Despite the number of health related claims put forth my marketers, there are only a handful of animal and human studies looking at health benefits of hemp seeds or oils. Because it's a small, new industry getting research going is nearly impossible without money - highly political isn't it?
However, I can use my professional judgement based on what I know on paper. In a nutshell, hemp is a high source of omega 6 and 3 essential fatty acids, protein, phosphorous, magnesium and manganese, and a moderate source of iron and zinc. Of particular interest to me are the essential ALA omega 3 fatty acids (essential meaning we have to consume them in the diet, our bodies cannot make these). Although omega 6 fatty acids are also essential, humans rarely have trouble meeting nutritional needs. However, we are not doing so well taking in omega 3 fatty acids whether from nuts and seeds or seafood. Although hemp seeds are not as high in ALA omega 3s as walnuts, chia seeds or ground flaxseed, they are still a very good alternative. Just 1-2 tablespoons will meet one's daily ALA omega 3 needs.
The other key nutrient in hemp of particular interest to me is protein. Hemp outweighs other nuts and seeds on the market, containing 2-3 times more protein. Personally, I prefer to get my protein needs from foods and not supplements, and hemp seeds make this possible at a whopping 3-5 grams per tablespoon! Now, despite popular belief, the protein in hemp is NOT a complete protein. Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board and World Health Organization both outline the optimal profiles of essential amino acids needed for a complete protein (measured in mg amino acids/g protein). Based on a study in the Journal of Food Chemistry (2008), hemp does contain all 9 essential amino acids, however, it does NOT contain adequate amounts of the amino acid lysine to make it complete. In saying that, we really don't need to concern ourselves with consuming complete proteins at each meal because where one crop (e.g. barley) may be low in one essential amino acid, the next crop (e.g. lentils) has adequate amounts and vice versa. Over the course of the day, our body will meet it's amino acid requirements if a person is eating a variety of grains, meat or vegetarian alternatives, and fruits and vegetables. I just wanted to clarify the issue.
Bottom line, I appreciate hemp and it's food products! It's an excellent source of ALA omega 3 fatty acids and protein, and makes a great meat alternative with good levels of zinc and iron. Add it to your yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, pasta sauce or just take it straight up! A tablespoon or two every day will add variety to your diet, improve your ALA omega 3 intake, and will boost your protein intake. I am stoked to follow future research of this amazing, non-GMO, prairie-grown plant. In the meantime, if you have any other questions about hemp foods, please email me at
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