Have you noticed that hemp has gone mainstream? If you wander down the health food aisle of your supermarket – a sign of a shift in interest towards healthier stuff in itself – you’ll see a rash of new products emerging: hemp seeds; hemp-based balls and bars; hemp seed oils; dressings; protein powders. This is off the back of a law change allowing hemp products to be sold as food. We can expect to see more hemp-y things appearing soon, as imported hemp foods become available and the local hemp industry ramps up.
In case you were worried, nothing you eat made from hemp is going to get you high. Hemp is harvested from a non-psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant, quite different from THC-containing marijuana.
Promoters of hemp wax are lyrical about how hemp is a wonder plant; it can feed, clothe and house us all at once, they say, since it can be used to make textiles, building material, medicines and food. It’s a highly sustainable crop since it is ‘low input’, requiring no fertiliser, pesticides or water.
And they also talk about hemp foods’ health benefits. So let’s have a look at that – is hemp worth adding to your day?
Hemp seeds (sometimes called hemp hearts) are high in health-promoting omega-3 and have a good balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats; something it’s useful to aim for. Omega-3s fight inflammation and have heart health benefits. Hemp seed oil is a nice one to experiment with for this reason. It’s not suitable for cooking with – it has a low smoke point – so it’s best for dressings or finishing. The oil has a fairly strong, nutty flavour, which you may find is an acquired taste – so dressings using other strong flavours such as balsamic vinegar will balance that out.
It’s important to note that the omega-3 in plants, and plant oils, is different to the omega-3 we get from oily fish. It may be more difficult for our bodies to process and absorb this type of omega-3, and we need more of it to get the equivalent benefit, compared to fish oils. But if you’re not into fish, or are vegetarian or vegan, hemp oil could be a useful addition to your oils collection.
Hemp can be used to make milk, as well as for textiles, building material, medicines and other food.
Hemp seeds are particularly high in protein compared to other seeds, which is why they’re often made into protein powders. Hemp is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. This is fairly rare among plants (quinoa is another example) and it makes it useful, again, for people who are not getting much protein from animal sources. None of us really needs protein powder – it’s popular for post-workout snacks but not really necessary if we’re going to be eating a meal within an hour or two – but if you’re looking for a plant-based one to try, it could be worth a look. It’s a little lower in protein than other plant proteins like pea or soy, but it is quite a bit higher in fibre, which is a useful bonus. I haven’t tried cooking with hemp protein but it seems it can be added to smoothies and bliss balls in the way other protein powders can.
Speaking of fibre, it’s here that hemp might be a bit of a superstar. The whole seeds – unhulled – are high in both soluble and insoluble fibre. Hulled seeds have less, but are easier to eat. As we know, we could all use more fibre to get to that magic 30 grams a day number where serious health benefits kick in. The fibre content in the seeds available for sale here seems to vary a bit; this may depend on how much they’ve been processed. If you’re thinking of trying hemp seeds, compare labels and go for higher fibre ones.
As with other seeds, hemp seeds can be added to all sorts of dishes: try them in cereal, salads, smoothies and baking. If you’re prone to IBS, it’s worth knowing that hemp seeds are gut-friendly; they’re a low-FODMAP food so shouldn’t aggravate grumbly tummies.
When it comes to hemp-based treats, it’s worth being circumspect. I’ve seen hemp chocolate, which although it’s promoted as “the healthiest chocolate on the planet”, probably cannot be defined as a health food. Just as with anything else we see promoted as “superfood”, eating it with a bunch of sugar and saturated fat tends to counteract any possible benefit.