Hemp Seed High in Protein and Omega Oils

Nov. 7, 2006
Hemp seed, once an annoying ingredient those most likely to encounter it, crept into the food chain a few years ago. But the move to make the tiny little green seeds into something profitable didn't seem to get off the ground until recently. It turns out that, while the seeds of the cannabis plant won't get you high, they could get you healthy - as a good source of protein and omega oils.

Hummus, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, has been a fairly standard dish for centuries: pureed garbanzo beans, tahini (ground sesame seed), a little lemon juice. Then it started showing up in health food stores, giving it the recognition it deserved as a healthy item. Soon, it was mainstream. As is often the case when popularity enters the picture, tradition takes a kick in the pants and soon olive hummus, spinach artichoke hummus, red pepper hummus and even jalapeño hummus became competitors for shelf space.

Such additions to garbanzos could have been tolerable but then a few companies got overexcited and had the audacity to mess with the basic formula, using different beans. One egregious alteration was substituting black beans for garbanzos, turning the product purple. Purple hummus doesn't cut it for this Texas resident of Middle Eastern heritage - in fact, "hummus" from any bean other than the garbanzo is plain old bean dip. Great for nachos but it belongs far away from pita.

Now there's hemp hummus. That's right; hummus made from the seeds of the Cannabis plant, the same one grown for marijuana and hashish. Were they high when they thought that oneup? Wait - don't answer that one. But is it legal? Actually, it is legal. And hummus is just one of a number of products made from hemp seed to be rolled out recently. We've got hemp for smoothies, hemp oil, hemp in nutrition bars and hemp crispy snacks. At the Natural Products Expo East last month, hemp "milk" was one of the newest such products showcased.

Although such products my have a high novelty value (there's that word again), and may even break with traditions, nutritionally, hemp is pretty smart. Hemp seeds   about the same size as sesame seeds - are about 50 percent fat by weight. The distribution of fatty acids in hemp is distinct because hemp seeds are richer in omega-3 fatty acids to balance out the omega-6. Most researchers conclude that a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio brings great health benefits. Add to this a generous portion of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (similar to those in olive oil) plus a significant portion of gamma-linoleic acid and you get a rather impressive fatty-acid profile.

But that's not all: Hemp seeds are about 31 percent protein by weight, making them richer than sunflower or any of the commonly used oil seeds. They have an essential amino-acid profile second only to soybeans as a complete vegetable protein. That makes hemp a viable protein supplement to a vegetarian diet, where variety in protein sources often can use a boost.

Hemp seeds are rich in the fat-soluble vitamins D and E, too, and contain generous amounts of B vitamins. As for minerals, zinc, magnesium, iron, copper and manganese are there, in addition to calcium.

So with all this nutrition and versatility is hemp the new soy? Not quite, but certainly it's trying to follow in soy's footsteps. Hemp seeds, which also remind one a little of raw wheat germ, are now filling many of the same places as soy in the food processing industry. In addition to the items mentioned above, whole-grain breads, and cereal preparations are now sporting hemp as a new and adventurous way to pump up the nutrition stats. The tiny seeds fit neatly into veggie burgers, enrich smoothies, and liven up salads. It's possible we may one day see hemp molded into ersatz tofu.

How is it consumers can enjoy all this nutrition without getting busted? Hemp is actually the common name for the species of Cannabis. Cannabis sativa is the species generally denoted as the major hemp crop. When grown for medicinal or recreational purposes, it is carries a number of different species names, like Cannabis indica, Cannabis, rasta, and Cannabis ruderalis. There are disagreements among botanists as to whether these are truly different species, but we'll let the experts hash that out. (Sorry!)

What distinguishes so-called "industrial hemp," used for fiber, and the "seed hemp" from the more "controversial" variety is a lower level of a physchoactive substance called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. A level between 0.3 percent and 1.0 percent of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol one does not experience the plant's psychoactive benefits. The "medicinal" plants contain between 20 percent and 30 percent delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.

Prior to the invention of aspirin, Cannabis was used to relieve the pain of migraines, to aid sleep, and as an anticonvulsant. Studies on the intoxicating effects of marijuana let to the discovery of its ability to lower the intraocular pressure that leads to the blindness of glaucoma. Many veterans of the Vietnam War believed that it lessened the spasms of spinal cord injuries.

Later research has focused on the plant's potential relief of the nausea and wasting that accompanies cancer therapy. As recently as 2005, Canadian researchers reported in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia that hemp oil relieved pain in rats with partial nerve injury an effect that may also have been due to the omega-3 fatty acids.

The hemp seeds that are popping up in stores generally come from Canada, where hemp it is considered a viable crop. It's illegal to grow in the United States, though U.S. companies process the valuable seeds into many new foods and cosmetics. The market is growing worldwide for hemp fiber, and even plastics are now made from hemp. Hemp seed fed to chickens results in eggs that have less saturated fat and more essential fatty acids, both omega-6, and omega-3.

The high content of omega-3 fatty acids that make hemp seed and hemp seed oil so valuable do have a down side. Highly unsaturated fatty acids are more susceptible to oxidation because of the increased number of double bonded carbon atoms. Hence the delicate seeds must be treated with care. Rancidity comes easily to hemp, which gives many hemp products their notorious "off" or "bitter" aftertaste. Processors wishing to develop products with hemp are cautioned that acceptance will be severly hampered if such effects are not controlled for. It will take more than listening to tapes of the Grateful Dead while blending your hemp smoothies to make a viable market product.

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