When hemp’s potential for commercialization is discussed, most people think of clothing, fabric, cordage, and the like. Even though hempseed is far more nutritious than soybean in virtually all respects and almost as versatile, the typical reaction to hempseed as a food is that it has limited application beyond nut bars and cookies. I am convinced, however, that the potential for hempseed as a food ingredient in industrialized nations, and especially the U.S., matches or exceeds the potential for textiles. And for one simple reason: essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Essential Fatty Acids
Dr. Udo Erasmus, an authority on edible fats and oils, called hempseed oil “Nature’s most perfectly balanced oil” for its high content and 1:3 ratio of the two essential fatty acids Omega-3 Linolenic Acid (LNA) and Omega-6 Linoleic Acid (LA). Its unusually well-balanced profile means that it could be used for a lifetime without ever suffering from EFA deficiency. Also, that it contains Omega-6 Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) makes it unique among edible seed oils (no other common seed oil contains GLA).
What’s the big deal about EFAs? Consider this: in recent years consumers have been changing their diets to reduce, and in many cases eliminate, their intake of dietary fats. Diets based on the theories and books of Drs. Pritikin and McDougall call for only 10% of calories coming from fat, and the new official U.S. guidelines suggest calories from fat be at 30%. Consumers got the message in a big way, so food companies have responded by introducing new lower-fat and fat-free products at a phenomenal rate. And food industry magazines all chant the new mantra: “cut the fat.” The biggest growth in the previously stagnant food ingredient industry have been in mimetics, enhancers, and extenders designed just to replace or reduce fat in foods.
But what happens when fat is reduced in the diet? Other than for concentrated energy, the reason humans must consume fat is to get an adequate supply of the two essential fatty acids LNA and LA — that’s why they are called “essential” and all the rest are just plain “fatty acids.” Typical modern food fat sources (soy and corn oils) are woefully low or lacking in EFAs, plus they are usually hydrogenated thereby ruining the goodness they did have. As this already meager EFA supply is cut further by a fat-reduction diet, intake of EFAs drops below the required level. Over time an essential fatty acid deficiency will develop. EFA deficiency may lead to abnormal eye and neurological function, hypertension, hormonal imbalance, impaired wound healing and cell growth, while a lack of GLA may lead to arthritis and premenstrual syndrome.
The daily recommended intake of LA is 3% to 6% of calories (9 to 18 grams, about 0.5 ounce or 1 tablespoon), and about 1/3 that for LNA (hence the optimum ratio of 1:3). The only way to prevent EFA deficiency is to consume EFAs in sufficiently high amounts relative to other fats (increasing the percent of calories from fat supplied by EFAs). Therefore the quality of fat in one’s diet is critically important, especially when one reduces fat intake. Simply put, think of EFAs as “good” fat and all other fats as “bad” fat. This concept will be popularized in the months and years to come in the popular media. And when it does, hempseed foods and hempseed oil will be at the head of the “good fat” line. (Just behind will be flax, evening primrose, borage, and other lesser EFA sources. But while these fats do contain one or both EFAs, none have the sheer quantity of both EFAs, plus GLA, that hempseed does.) As the trend towards “nutraceuticals” (nutritional foods or substances which prevent disease) continues, the increasingly sophisticated consumer will demand healthy “good” fats from their foods, and hempseed has the best prospects for meeting that demand.
For more information on EFAs I recommend two books: Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill by Dr. Udo Erasmus, ISBN 0-920470-38-6, and Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease by Dr. Edward N. Siguel, ISBN 0-9642534-0-2. They are available from many hemp product mail order vendors, or your local bookstore.
Hempseed as Food
It is said that Buddha ate one hempseed a day for three years as a young ascetic monk. If hempseed was good enough for Buddha, it should be good enough for us. But how, and in what form? Hempseed enjoys a long history of use in foods, such as in the ancient Shinto religion of Japan, to Chinese medicinal preparations, and gruel and butters in eastern Europe. Hempseed is considered “Generally Recognized As Safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since it has been used as a human food for millennia before 1958, their cutoff date for recognizing foods without requiring extensive feeding studies. But even though hemp has been in existence twice as long as soybeans, the seed’s hard coat not only protects its abundance of nutrients, but also makes it more difficult to use for food.
Hempseed foods are made from hempseed. Although it is impossible for the seed to ever contain any THC within it, often resin sticks to the outside of the coat. (THC is the psychoactive component in marihuana, which is produced in the flowering tops.) That is how some hempseed foods can cause consumers to test positive for marihuana in urine tests, even without consuming any marihuana. The culprit is the minute traces of THC (even as low as 20 parts-per-million) on the outside of the seed coat, combined with the extremely sensitive testing methods. If you have to pee in a cup for your boss or the government, look for hempseed foods that claim to be THC-free. Hempseed that has been de-hulled, such as HempNut brand, have the offending seed coats removed and thus are far less likely to cause one to test positive. (Note that ibuprofen, such as Advil, can also cause false positives in marihuana urine tests.)
Because of the misplaced fear of even trace amounts of THC by governments, in Europe there exists seed certified to produce low-THC (less than 1.4%) hemp, for fiber production. However, it is monoecious, and thus must be repurchased each planting season. But in the U.S. and Canada, quite unlike elsewhere in the world, hempseed must be sterilized, rendered incapable of growing, in order to be legal. The fear of THC in hemp is misplaced for many reasons, but the most compelling is that hemp plants contain very little THC, but tend to have even more of a “THC blocker,” called Cannabidiol, or CBD. This substance actually goes into the THC receptors in the brain and keeps THC from docking there, thus preventing “getting high.” So even if you following a low-THC joint with a high-THC one, you wouldn’t get as high because of the CBD.
And if those zealous defenders of the War on (some) Drugs would remove their brains from their ass for even a moment, they would realize that the quickest way to devastate the local marihuana industry would be to plant hemp upwind of the pot. Male hemp plants produce pollen, which can be carried in the wind very far, thus pollinating the waiting female plants. The result is marihuana with markedly reduced potency. Even the difference in appearance between pot and hemp is startling, not unlike the difference between roses and a field of corn: hemp is tall and thin, planted inches apart, with only a few leaves at the top. Marihuana is short and bushy, planted many feet apart, with many branches of big buds. It is curious that the zealots continue to insult the visual acuity and intelligence of our fine law enforcement officers by claiming that they can’t tell the difference!
(Of course, producing drug-free hemp or hempseed without the proper permits in the U.S. is the crime of marihuana cultivation. A recent article in the Colorado Law Review, volume 66, issue 4, states that the intent of Congress was never to ban hemp production, a ban which was waived during World War II. Or in the words of the infamous Harry J. Anslinger, the government’s leading advocate for marihuana prohibition: “[T]hey can go ahead and raise hemp just as they have always done it.” The article sheds light on many legal avenues for achieving an end to hemp prohibition.)
Since thousands of tons of hempseed are imported into the U.S. every year (1,000,000 pounds in 1995, mostly for bird seed) an infrastructure exists for sterilization of the imported viable hempseed. There is only one facility in the U.S. authorized by the DEA to receive the imported viable seed under customs bond, and due to DEA red-tape they probably wish they didn’t even do the business. They cook or steam the hempseed at 212° F for 15 minutes, then release it to the consignee or customer with a certificate of sterilization. I have never heard of radiation used to sterilize hempseed in the U.S., or elsewhere. Additionally, it wouldn’t be economically feasible to do so, it is not warranted, and there are few facilities for it. Ethyl bromide may be used on hempseed, as it used on all imported seed. It is said to be sufficiently volatile so as not to remain on the treated seed very long.
(In the U.S. I strongly suggest that when you purchase hempseed request the vendor supply you with a copy of such a certificate, and keep it physically near the seed as well as a copy in your files. An early developer of hempseed foods, Alan Brady, was arrested in California because the cleaning mill to which he took his seed called the sheriff. Although charges were dropped and his seed was returned, a case such as this illustrates the need for keeping a certificate of sterilization on hand.)
Much is made of the alleged degradation to the seed by the steam sterilization process. I have seen no research to support such a conclusion. I believe that little damage is done to the seed by the steaming process, especially the fat, for a variety of reasons: 1) the coat is very hard and usually remains intact; 2) the internal temperature of the seed is certainly well below 212° F; 3) the seed moves about as it is heated and thus can cool intermittently during the 15 minute process; 4) the protein is not denatured by the process; 5) fats are not transformed at this temperature, although if a seed coat was broken it could begin to oxidize due to the heat and oxygen; 6) birds continue to thrive on the sterilized seed; 7) the process was designed to apply the minimum amount of heat to render the seed nonviable while still maintaining nutrition for birds; and 8) most expeller-pressed hempseed oil is subjected to internal temperatures exceeding that of steaming, and for a longer period of time. However, I do believe that overall quality degradation of “freshness” is accelerated by the sterilization process, most evident in seed stored for longer periods of time.
The true senselessness of requiring sterilization of hempseed which is incapable of producing usable quantities of THC, is that the sprouting of hempseed is the key to using it for many foods! Sprouting increases some nutrition, improves digestibility, reduces cost (one pound of seed will yield three pounds of sprouts, thereby cutting the cost by two-thirds), and most importantly, improves ease of handling since the coats are split and can be removed with water agitation or other methods. This is why companies in countries that don’t require sterilization have the edge in the production of hempseed foods, especially for export. Fresh, raw, viable hempseed is as tasty as sunflower kernels, very edible, with no seed coats lodging in the teeth.
About Hempseed Oil
Hempseed oil can be extracted by mechanical or chemical methods, as is used for soybean, flax, and other edible oils. Far more critical to the quality of the finished oil than sterilization of the seed is the method of oil extraction. The optimal processing technique is that the seed is crushed without solvent in an environment free of light and oxygen, with as little heat as possible, quickly cooled, and kept that way through final packaging or bottling. Not all oil extraction plants have the capability of producing oil in this manner. Immediately after crushing, natural antioxidants should be added, such as odorless rosemary extract and Vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol). These protect the oil in the package, and increase stability by reducing oxidation, which causes rancidity.
Oil rancidity is absolutely to be avoided in any food since it is toxic, damaging cell membranes and impairing liver function and the immune system. Rancidity can sometimes, but not always, be noticed by a strange flavor and feeling (either soapiness or astringency or burning) felt in the mouth and back of the throat. The measure of rancidity is how much peroxide and other toxic oxidation products have formed in the oil, called Peroxide Value (PV), and is expressed as number of milli-equivalents per kilogram. Although not perfect (inaccurate below 5 PV), it is the best standard for measurement of rancidity. Testing for the level of anicidines is also a way of measuring rancidity, but PV is a measure of how fast rancidity is happening. The T-bar test is a more accurate test of rancidity, but not as wide spectrum. Very rancid oil might have a low PV, since it has stopped oxidizing. But it would be high in anicidines. PV varies by oil source, and should always be less than 15 in hempseed. Some very carefully pressed and bottled oils can be as low as 0.5, and olive oil often measures in at 20 because of the easy and low-tech nature of its pressing. Commercial corn oil often goes as high as 60 because the level at which corn oil becomes unpalatable is 100. The PV at which the taste of an oil is objectionable varies from oil to oil, and I know of no studies which determined that level in hempseed oil, although palatable hempseed oil has been measured at PV=7. Whenever buying hempseed oil always ask for a copy of the results of the Peroxide Value test performed on that batch, or test it yourself for $50 to $100 at most nutritional testing labs. The Smoke Point of hempseed oil is 165° C, the Flash Point is 141° C, and the Melting Point is minus 8° C.
Hempseed is available through specialty seed brokers (always ask for food-grade seed), importers such as Ohio Hempery, and most other mail order vendors. Hempseed oil is available from many mail order vendors of hemp products. Hempseed and oil should always be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place. Hempseed oil may be frozen, but should not be used for frying since it will generating trans-fatty acids if heated above 350° F. It is naturally pleasant-tasting and green in color due to magnesium-rich chlorophyll and carotene from the seed coats. Currently at least six companies in the Americas market bulk hempseed oil, with most of it pressed in the U.S. under good conditions, some pressed in Canada which is bleached and deodorized, and some pressed in South America under unknown conditions. Certified organic hempseed from Europe is now becoming available.
Foods from Hemp
There are four general methods for preparing foods from hempseed: using whole seed, using hulled hempseed, milling the seed, and using the oil directly. In whole-seed processing the seed is left intact and incorporated as an ingredient in a mixture, such as in Mama Indica’s seed treats, or is further processed whole, such as Jamaica Jay’s roasted and seasoned snack seeds.
Hulled hempseed is the most significant development in hempseed in centuries. The hard, crunchy coat is removed, thus improving palatability and ease of processing. HempNut is the first brand of this type of product and is available in natural food stores. Hulled hempseed can be used in many recipes much like sesame or tofu, such as HempRella. Additionally, raw or roasted hempseed may be milled into a paste similar to peanut butter, a delicacy long prized in eastern Europe but currently unavailable in the U.S.
Hempseed can be processed very much like soybeans for use in soymilk, tofu, and secondary soy foods. As with soybeans, a larger hempseed with higher protein content is best. Soaking, milling, cooking, and extracting the insoluble fiber are the stages of soymilk production, which would also be the same for hempseed milk production. From soymilk one could make tofu, frozen dessert, cheese, or hundreds of other products, and so it is for hempseed milk. There are few soy-based foods that could not be made from hempseed.
Using just hempseed oil is useful in fat-based products such as Seldom Seen Green salad dressing, or in any product for which fat is an ingredient, such as frozen desserts or baked goods. However, this is the highest cost alternative, since hempseed oil currently is in the $25 to $100 per gallon range and seed is $0.60 to $2.00 (or equalized to relative oil content and expressed in gallons, seed is $16 to $53). When using oil as an ingredient the quality of the oil is extremely critical, since if it is of low quality (rancid) the finished product will have a short shelf life, with off-flavor and free radical formation.
Nutritional Comparison of Hempseed and HempNut to Soybean
|per 100 grams
|Linolenic acid (LNA)
|Linoleic acid (LA)
|LNA:LA ratio (1:3=optimum)
Please note that unlike hempseed, soybean suffers from the anti-nutritional factors trypsin inhibitor (which prevents protein absorption), and oligosaccharides (causes flatulence). Also, due to frequent exposure to soy and other reasons, a significant portion of the population is allergic to soy, unlike hempseed. The protein in hempseed is of a higher quality than that of soy, and is far more easily digestible. For more detailed nutritional information on hempseed and hempseed oil, inquire via email: info@TheHempNut.com.