Many say that hemp (Cannabis sativa) is the functional food for the future. The plants’ seeds contain potent nutrition with an array of trace minerals, an abundance of protein and fiber, and all the essential amino and fatty acids needed for a healthy diet. What’s more, hemp is a renewable, reusable and recyclable resource, producing four times as much pulp per acre as trees and significantly more fiber per square foot than either cotton or flax. This fast-growing annual also merits an “environmental-friendliness seal of approval” — it typically is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides thanks to its natural pest resistance.
So why wait for the future when you can harvest the benefits of dietary hemp right now? Interest in hemp is rising due to its amazing versatility. Not only is hemp a healthy food, but it is widely used in nutraceuticals and body-care products, as well as in textiles and industrial goods.
Hemp may be hot, but what it’s not is a source of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the hallucinatory psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (which contains anywhere from 5 to 20 percent THC). Hemp belongs to a diverse plant species including more than 500 varieties, of which marijuana is a distant cousin. Growers have bred strains for dietary hemp, also referred to as industrial hemp, to produce only insignificant trace amounts of THC — less than 0.3 percent. The trace amounts are as harmless as the trace amounts of opiates in poppy seeds.
Cultivation and use of hemp date back more than 5,000 years. Historians have documented the plant’s use throughout the world as a food grain and a source of fiber. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers grew hemp; Betsy Ross stitched the first American flag with it; the signers of the Declaration of Independence inked their John Hancocks on hemp paper; and Colonial Americans used hemp as lamp oil and as canvas for covered wagons.
Today, industrial hemp is cultivated worldwide, with countries like Canada and China leading the way. U.S. retailers and manufacturers import large quantities of hemp fiber, hemp seeds and hemp seed oil from Canada and other nations.
In 1937, the United States government banned hemp farming. But in the 1940s, the crop was legally grown for the war effort (hemp was needed to make rope, webbing and canvas, among other things, to be used on navy ships — it was called the “Hemp for Victory” campaign). In 1970, Congress designated hemp (along with its cousin marijuana) as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to grow hemp without a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA has approved only one license, which expired in 2003. A number of states have passed laws to allow hemp farming, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, but farmers in those states still can’t grow the crop without a federal OK.
In spite of the Bush Administration’s attempt at banning sales of products made from hemp, in 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld its ruling to allow the continued manufacture and sales of hemp-based products made from imported hemp.
From Stalk to Seed
The hemp industry is huge, with North Americans spending an estimated $100 million annually on hemp products, ranging from food, health and skin-care products to textiles, plastics and biofuel. Historically, manufacturers used the fiber-rich stalk to make nearly all sails for ships, but today the canvas-type material is used to make tents, backpacks, bags and tarps. And hemp is now appearing in carpets and myriad textiles and fabrics, from linens and drapes to shoes, clothing and accessories. Even fashion giants like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Adidas are in on the action, adding hemp-made products to their clothing lines.
Stalk-based products also include insulation material, fiberboard and other building materials used to make everything from car moldings to kitchen cabinets; industrial products like agro-fiber composites and caulking; and a plethora of paper products, from cardboard to coffee filters. Hemp leaves’ uses are a bit more limited, but they do make for great mulch, and can be used as animal bedding or turned into compost.
Hemp seeds serve as a tasty food source that can be eaten plain or added to recipes. Seeds also are pressed to make oil. The resulting seed cake (crushed seed hulls) is used to brew beer, crush into animal feed or grind into flour. On the industrial level, the oil is used in lubricants, printing inks and in the manufacture of synthetic resins widely used in adhesives and paints. Various grades of hemp oil also are used as a nutritional supplement or to flavor foods, as well as in body-care products and cosmetics.
Hemp for Beauty
Skin endures a lot of abuse from our lifestyles and the environment, and all that abuse comes with its consequences. Sun exposure, pollution, poor nutrition, aging and free-radical damage can weaken the skin’s natural protection and reduce its ability to retain moisture. Skin-care products containing essential fatty acids (EFAs) and gamma linolenic acid (GLA) are beneficial for skin that is dry, itchy, acne-prone, stressed or sun-damaged. These essential components also are effective for atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and inflammation — thereby preventing or diminishing breakouts.
Hemp seed oil is not only rich in EFAs and GLA — making it an excellent emollient and moisturizer with anti-aging properties — but its unique oil profile is similar to that of the skin’s own natural lipids. Instead of forming a temporary barrier on the skin’s surface, hemp oil is absorbed by the skin, where it can directly nourish the lipid layers of skin cells. You will find a multitude of skin-care products and cosmetics on the market today that contain hemp seed oil, including shampoos and conditioners reputed to improve the structural quality and manageability of hair.
Hemp for Health
Essential fatty acids exhibit powerhouse benefits that include anticancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic properties. These polyunsaturates help regulate mood, body temperature, organ function, insulin balance and joint health. EFAs also help enhance metabolic rates and lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, resulting in a reduced risk for atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke.
While flaxseed oil certainly is rich in EFAs, hemp ranks higher at 80 percent — the highest total of any seed oil. With a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, hemp provides the ideal combination of EFAs needed for optimal health. The gluten-free protein is easily digestible, with a protein content that is comparable to soybeans. And hemp contains a class of proteins called globulins, which function as carriers of certain hormones, lipids and antibodies necessary to maintain a healthy immune system.
Hemp surpasses even soybeans when it comes to its range and balance of nutritional benefits. Hemp contains a bonus of gamma-linolenic acid, which is the active component found in evening primrose oil. Both seed and oil are abundant in antioxidants and contain a myriad of vitamins, minerals and trace minerals. No other seed oil offers a level of nutritional value that is so in sync with our dietary needs. And you can obtain these benefits with just one tablespoon of hemp seed oil a day. Now that’s easy to digest.
Hemp for Taste
Hemp seed usually is available shelled, which often is called “hemp seed nut,” though small bits of the green hull may remain. About the size of a sesame seed, hemp seeds have a delicate, nutty flavor reminiscent of sunflower seeds. The oil is more intense in color than a dark olive oil and has an exceptionally nutty flavor that marries well with just about any food.
A word of caution: Because the oil is highly unsaturated, it has a low smoke point, much like flaxseed oil and other nut oils. Therefore, avoid frying or cooking with the oil at high temperatures — the heat can alter the molecular structure, changing good fatty acids into harmful trans-fatty acids. Warming the oil at low temperatures for a short period of time, however, is fine. For example, you might add the oil to a sauce during the last several minutes as it simmers. You also can use the oil in baking at temperatures of 350 degrees or less.
Hemp oil will stay fresh for up to a year if frozen. Once the oil has been opened, store it in the refrigerator and use it within three months for maximum nutrition. But that’s not hard to do. In fact, it’s a piece of cake, because hemp oil lends itself to such a variety of foods — including cake.
HEMP SEED OATMEAL WITH ASIAN PEARS AND HAZELNUTS
If ripe Asian pears are not in season, apple varieties like Gala or Fuji make a tasty substitute. Save time and buy prechopped hazelnuts at your supermarket or specialty store.
13/4 cup water
11/2 cups diced Asian pear (about 1 medium)
11/4 cups regular rolled oats
1 cup light coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ginger
1/2 cup hemp seeds
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts
3 tablespoons honey
Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add Asian pears, oats, coconut milk, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and ginger. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes. Stir in hemp seeds and simmer, covered, for 2 minutes more or until thick. To serve, sprinkle with hazelnuts and drizzle with honey.
HEMP SEED CRAB CAKES
Makes 8 patties
Here’s a quick fix for an appetizing lunch or light supper. Serve with Harvest Slaw on the side for a double dose of healthy polyunsaturated essential fatty acids.
1 large egg
1/4 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons diced celery (use upper stalk with celery leaves)
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup fresh whole-grain breadcrumbs
1/2 cup hemp seeds
13/4 cups fresh lump crabmeat, shell pieces removed
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a bowl, combine egg, mayonnaise, celery, basil, chives and garlic until thoroughly blended. Add breadcrumbs and hemp seeds. Gently mix in crabmeat until mixture clings together. If mixture is too dry, add a little more mayonnaise; if it seems too wet, add a few more breadcrumbs.
Shape the crab mix into 8 equal patty cakes. Put on plate, then cover and refrigerate for an hour or more until ready to cook. To cook cakes, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Cook crab cakes for 3 to 5 minutes on one side or until golden brown, then flip. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to the skillet and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden brown. (If you need to cook the cakes in two batches, divide the oil accordingly.) Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. Great served with sliced avocados on the side.
BANANA HEMP BREAD WITH CASHEWS
Makes 1 loaf
Instead of using butter or margarine as a spread for warm bread slices, try cashew butter or hemp butter for a nutty change of pace.
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup unbleached flour
2/3 cup raw sugar
1/2 cup chopped dry-roasted cashews
1/3 cup hemp seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup hemp seed oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil (such as canola or sunflower)
1 to 11/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large bananas)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup plain nonfat yogurt or applesauce
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, combine both flours with sugar, cashews, hemp seeds, baking power, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, both oils, mashed bananas, vanilla, and yogurt or applesauce. Fold banana mixture into flour mixture, stirring just until combined.
Coat a loaf pan with a nonstick cooking spray. Pour batter into pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let sit in pan for 5 to 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool. Slice, serve and enjoy.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee. Contact her at www.HerbsFor Health.com/contributors.
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