As research continues to reveal how the foods we eat influence our likelihood of developing an assortment of chronic diseases, more attention than ever is being paid to functional foods. Functional foods are foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. DHA (omega-3 fat) present in salmon, sulforaphane present in broccoli, flavonoids found in cocoa beans and lycopene in tomato sauce are examples of substances present in specific foods that have a direct effect on the fight against disease. While hemp has attained most of its accolades for its role in making a Grateful Dead concert that much groovier, it is its role as a functional food that should be getting our attention.
Hemp is produced from the plant Cannabis sativa l. and is extremely versatile in that it can be transformed into numerous products some of which include clothes, detergent, food, fuel, paint, varnish, paper, oil, medicines and fiber. Hemp is truly one of the world's great renewable resources. While it is illegal to grow hemp in certain countries (e.g., United States), other countries such as Canada allow the production of hemp much to the benefit of our health and the health of the environment. While hemp is not allowed to be grown in the United States, the possession and sale of hemp foods is completely legal.
It must be clearly stated that it is impossible to get “high” by eating hemp food. In the cultivation of marijuana, the leaf of the plant is what is harvested to ensure a high amount of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinaol). THC is what gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. Hemp seeds, on the other hand, are found at the top of the plant located within a protective shell and thus contain no or miniscule amounts of THC. In fact, most of the hemp for food comes from a variety of Cannabis sativa l. that is virtually devoid of THC. Athletes who are worried about failing doping tests need to be made aware of this fact and can be completely confident that adding hemp into a training diet is not at all risky.
Hemp as a Functional Food
Hemp, when consumed as a food, has numerous nutritional benefits in addition to adding dietary variety and helping alleviate food boredom. There are two qualities in particular that make hemp very attractive. Hemp provides both the essential fatty acids needed in the human diet as well as a complete and balanced complement of all essential amino acids.
Hemp seeds, like flax seeds, are a rich source of essential fatty acids (EFAs). All told, around 35% of hemp is essential fatty acids, and 75% to 80% of its total fat is polyunsaturated. EFAs are fats we must obtain in our diet since they cannot be produced in the human body. In fact, hemp contains a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 (linoleic acid) to omega-3 fat (linolenic acid) that many health experts and groups such as the World Health Organization believe is needed in the diet to promote overall well being. Currently, as a consequence of our fast food culture and resulting consumption of processed vegetable oils (e.g., corn and soybean), the ratio typically seen in the developed world is roughly 10:1. This imbalance is thought to exacerbate inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and heart disease. The fat present in hemp is also one of the very few food sources of an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Much like the fat found in fish oil, GLA is showing promise in helping the fight against chronic diseases by having anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic and lipid-lowering characteristics. Hemp oil contains about 2.5% to 3% of its volume as GLA. The best dietary sources of GLA are evening primrose, borage (24% GLA) and blackcurrant seed oils.
Therefore, when we are thinking of ways of adding healthy fat into our own or a client’s diet, we should consider hemp alongside flaxseed, olive oil, avocado and almonds. However, the fat (DHA/EPA) that is present in fish should still be considered the gold standard when it comes to disease protective fatty acids.
The protein that hemp contains is somewhat unique in the vegetable kingdom in that it contains an ample amount of all the essential amino acids and therefore ranks up there with soy as a vegetarian protein source with a high biological value. However, unlike soy, hemp does not contain any of soy’s irritants such as oligosaccharides (short chain carbohydrates) that result in some people being unable to tolerate large amounts of soy products (except fermented soy). When bacteria work on these undigested oligosaccharides, the consequence can be room clearing gas. Hemp appears to be free of any so-called “anti-nutrients” (which can be found in soy) that interfere with protein digestion. The balanced combination of all the essential amino acids and its ease of digestion make hemp a valuable protein source for vegetarians as well as for carnivores.
In addition, the type of protein in hemp (edestin and albumin) most closely resembles the protein found in human blood, making it easier to digest for some people than soy protein. Hemp protein also contains relatively high levels of the branched-chain amino acids that are crucial in the repair and growth of lean body mass, making hemp useful as part of a post-workout meal.
Hemp also contains antioxidants (e.g., Vitamin E complex), fiber, vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll and phytosterols, all of which will help promote optimal health and maximum exercise performance. Phytosterols, of which hemp seed contains 438 mg per 100 gram serving, have been shown to reduce total serum cholesterol by an average of 10% and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by an average of 13%.
Mother Nature Loves Hemp
Some of the environmental benefits that come with choosing hemp foods include the following:
- Hemp plants are such a sturdy crop they do not require any use of pesticides and herbicides that are common in modern day agriculture.
- Hemp's resilience allows it to grow in a variety of climatic conditions, promoting better land and water usage. Indeed, hemp would be an excellent way to help fight world hunger because it could easily grow in a variety of regions and is nutritionally well balanced.
- Hemp is an excellent rotational crop, helping to alleviate the serious problems associated with monoagriculture. There is a huge need for an increased bio-diversity of crops.
- Unlike much of the soy grown in North America, hemp is never genetically modified, a practice that has many environmentalists worried will upset our sensitive ecological balance.
- Hemp is often grown by smaller farmers as opposed to giant corporate organizations. Therefore, by purchasing hemp products, you are often supporting the small guy.
Types of Hemp Foods
Because of increased awareness and better technology, we have more choices than ever when it comes to hemp foods. Some of the products that are now available to today’s consumer include:
- Hemp Seeds. These are tiny, beige seeds that look similar to sesame seeds and are a good source of protein, fiber and healthy fat. They make an excellent topping for any salad or cereal.
- Hemp Oil. With its bright green appearance, hemp oil can make a unique addition to any oil collection. Hemp oil is produced when hemp seeds are pressed and is wonderful for a salad dressing, adding to a Smoothie or for fresh bread dipping. A huge benefit of hemp oil is that it is not refined in the same way as many supermarket oils (e.g., canola). Make sure to never cook with hemp oil as the omega fat is unstable and will breakdown when exposed to high temperatures. Because of this sensitivity, it should be stored in the refrigerator.
- Hemp Protein Powder. Hemp protein powder is derived from the seed cake that is left over when producing hemp oil from hemp seeds. This protein powder gives vegetarians another viable option for making a post-workout protein shake. When purchasing a hemp protein powder, you should be looking for a brand that supplies at least 50% protein by weight, supplying 15 grams of protein per 30 gram serving. Hemp protein is a fairly raw product and, therefore, needs to be mixed fairly well in a blender.
- Hemp Butter. Hemp butter can now be found along with a variety of other nut butters in health food stores. Hemp butter can be added to crackers, bread or Smoothies.
As the nutritional benefits of hemp become more well known, look for it to be worked into numerous products such as chocolate, salad dressings, cereals, energy bars, pasta and veggie burgers. One warning: As more processed products start to include hemp, you can expect these products to include artificial ingredients such as preservatives that traditional whole hemp products do not.
For more information, please check out the following web sites: