Awareness of the human endocannabinoid system is spreading. Michael Pollen describes this cannabis receptor system, comprised of lipids and their receptors that every mammal has, as evidence that “we’ve co-evolved with the plant.” News is also spreading about the everyday health benefits of the non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant: hemp. Hemp is touted as a “superfood” and can be consumed as both a seed and oil.
There are many potential nutritive benefits from crushing hemp into oil or just eating the seed of the hemp plant; this includes the oil itself, hemp “hearts” (which are the de-hulled seeds that happen to taste great in a bowl of yogurt), and hemp protein derived from seed pressing.
This nutritive (sometimes called agricultural, or industrial) hemp is defined the world over as any variety of the cannabis plant with .3% or less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the best-known psychoactive cannabinoid). That .3% THC ceiling is a random and recent one that (if you really want to peek behind the curtain) has to do with hemp variety competition within the European Union. It’s one that some hemp producers don’t like, believing it might limit qualities like fiber strength and seed production. But this is where things stand today. Under this definition of hemp, we’re talking about a product that you can feed to your children. You could drink a gallon of hemp seed oil every day and you would not fail a drug test. It is notpsychoactive cannabis.
Cannabis Oil Is Not Hemp
Here’s where we might need to clear up some terminology confusion. The medical treatment from the cannabis plant’s flowers (not hemp seeds) that is getting a lot of attention — especially with the anecdotal, but clearly incredible, results we’re seeing when it’s used to treat childhood epilepsy — is different than hemp seed. It’s called cannabis oil. Again, it is derived from cannabis flower extraction, not the seed.
Clearly promising health benefits of cannabinoids aside, some clever marketers of these flower extracts are starting to incorrectly market their cannabis oils as “hemp oil.” They’re doing so in an attempt to disassociate their product from “marijuana,” which has (due to the outdated Nixon-era war on drugs) long been demonized. Some states like Utah and Missouri, whose current legislators want to take the smallest possible steps into cannabis legalization, are even describing their legislation as “hemp” bills. Cannabis oil is not hemp oil, however, and it is not the subject of this article.
A question I often hear is, “but mightn’t some varieties of hemp plants, including their flowers, be high in some of the non-psychoactive components of cannabis that are proving promisingly medicinal?” A short answer is yes. There are dozens of approved hemp varieties (cultivars). Once more research and breeding is completed, it’s quite likely that a low-THC hemp cultivar might prove high in non-psychoactive cannabinoids.
Even without getting into the potential cannabinoid-derived healing effects, hemp seeds and their oil appear to many nutritionists to provide clear nutritive benefit to health.
So, at long last, here are six reasons daily hemp consumption is a great way to boost your overall health:
1. Hemp seed-derived food contains what might be an ideal balance of essential fatty acids.
Our grandparents were almost certainly right to shove cod liver oil down our parents’ gullets. It’s amazingly good for you in what today we describe as its Omega Profile: the essential fatty acid nutritive building blocks that are well, essential. Hence the phrase “superfood.” Guess what? Hemp might do the nutritive job as well or better, in a number of nutritive categories, and far better than its cousin flax seed oil.
Dr. Dylan MacKay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Richardson Center for Functional Food and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba (in a talk I heard him give at that Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance convention last month), pointed out that the oil from pressed hemp seed provides a ratio of Linoleic Acid (an omega-6) and Alpha-Linolenic Acid (an omega-3) that is 3 to 1, which many nutritionists believe is the ideal ratio. In MacKay’s slides, it was cool to see the ratios of all kinds of nuts and seed oils alongside one other, none but hemp showing the 3 to 1 ratio.
2. Hemp is high in healthy minerals.
John Roulac, the founder of Nutiva Foods (this is where my family gets much of its organic hemp seed oil these days, until we can grow it ourselves) told me that, especially for vegetarians, hemp seed oil provides selenium, magnesium, zinc and iron content that isn’t easy to find in a single food. My family dumps two tablespoons in the morning shake every day, without fail.
3. Hemp food might be anti-inflammatory.
Hemp seed and its by-products also include an unusually high amount of a nutritive component, Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA), which Roulac said is an anti-inflammatory and a building block of cell membranes. McKay said that this might prove to be true, and a likely reason is the “eicosanoid metabolites” (which are building blocks of fatty acids) in GLA.
4. Hemp in your shake could make it an energy drink.
Dr. McKay told me that “hemp oil is a fat, and like all fats it is very calorie dense at ~9 kcal/g. If you want to maximize you caloric intake at a small volume then fats are the way to go for energy.”
For me it’s experiential. I dash out for a post-goat milking run and then hop into the office kneeling chair for a morning of writing after my morning hemp oil-infused shake before I even think about more food, or a break, for that matter. I’ve never felt healthier (knocking on wood as I write this).
5. A component of hemp’s protein might protect the heart.
While he cautions that no human trials have been conducted using hemp, Dr. MacKay said, “Some proteins high in arginine [which hemp protein is)], are thought to have cardio protective effects, likely via reducing blood pressure or improving endothelial [tissue lining the blood vessels, heart, and lymphatic vessels] function.”
6. Hemp food contains antioxidants believed to be essential to good health.
In a 2005 article by Liangli Lucy Yu, Kequan Kevin Zhou, and John Parry in the journal Food Chemistry, the authors write that their results “suggest that cold-pressed black caraway, cranberry, carrot and hemp seed oils may serve as dietary sources of natural antioxidants for health promotion.” (Dr. MacKay, ever the careful scientist, points out that the authors of that article did not go so far as “to test the hemp oil antioxidants” in humans vis-a-vis changes in oxidative stress following hemp consumption.)
As with all things cannabis, research into the health benefits of hemp has long been delayed. With the drug war ending, we’re finally seeing a tide of long-delayed research into hemp’s nutritional profile and its benefits. One study I researched in my book Hemp Bound shows that hemp-fed laying hens provide healthier eggs than corn-fed hens. With this year’s first federally legal U.S. hemp harvest of the millennium and a pending Congressional spending bill prohibiting federal interference with hemp seed importation, universities are transitioning from fear to acceptance when it comes to hemp research. Colorado is funding hemp research, Oregon State offers a hemp class, and the state of Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, James Comer, believes the new hemp industry is the best thing since…the old hemp industry, in which Kentucky was the world leader prior to Prohibition.
One Last Note: Keeping It Organic
For the purposes of this article, I’m talking about strictly organic hemp. Over the course of my five years of cannabis journalism, it’s become clear to me that it’s important to eat only organic hemp products. This was solidified from the educational experience of speaking to big acreage hemp farmers at the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance convention last month.
Here’s why: hemp is what’s known as a bridge crop: it has a short, roughly 16-week growing season. Even though it’s proving up to five times more profitable to Canadian farmers today than GMO cycle crops, hemp allows farmers to plant another crop on the same land during the same season. Often that will be a GMO crop, with associated pesticides.
These non-organic farmers aren’t stupid. They know hemp leaches toxins from the soil. So, they are explicitly using hemp to clean their pesticide-laden soil, then selling the toxin-filled hemp harvest as food. The same soil phyto-remediating (toxic-leaching) qualities that caused hemp to be used in the Ukrainian soil clean up around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster can and should be used to rebuild soil health on the Canadian prairie. But that hemp shouldn’t be consumed as food. Mutli-cropping land is fine, as long as it’s all organic, but what I’ve learned about pesticides that are being used on non-organic hemp has convinced me to feed my family only organic hemp from non-GMO impacted soil. We could go back and forth all day with a GMO seed/chemical pesticide company about the relative dangers of every pesticide on the market. The fact is, when we can farm organically, with fewer and safer crop additives, I believe the resulting foods will be safer, and, many studies show, healthier. I’d feel on less solid ground if dozens of pesticides hadn’t been pulled off the market in the past century as carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous to health.