Hemp is definitely the “It” plant these days. Thanks largely to the public’s interest in cannabidiol (CBD), hemp and cannabis-derived products are poised to hit $2.6 billion in sales by 2022.
But in the midst of this Cannapalooza, one vital part of the plant is being overlooked and underloved: hemp seeds.
No, they do not contain THC, CBD, or other brain-tickling cannabinoids, but these humble seeds are culinary and nutritional powerhouses that definitely earn the status of “superfood.”
There are misconceptions about hemp seeds that deter some people from trying them. Which is unfortunate, because hemp seeds pack a big nutritional punch.
First off, let’s be clear about what plant they come from.
The plants we know as “Hemp” and “Cannabis” (aka Marijuana) are from the same botanical genus, called Cannabis. The difference between them is in the relative concentrations of CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids that they produce.
As defined by the Federal government in last year’s historic Farm Bill, “Industrial Hemp”—the main source of hemp seeds used for food—produces significant quantities of CBD, but only very small amounts (under 0.3% dry weight) of THC, the compound largely responsible for the psychotropic effects of Marijuana.
The forms of cannabis that are sold for recreational or therapeutic use as "Marijuana," produce both CBD and THC, the latter in high amounts. The difference between “hemp” and “cannabis” is a regulatory distinction, not a taxonomic one.
Both hemp and cannabis/marijuana produce many other cannabinoids, which researchers are only beginning to characterize.
But all of these cannabinoids are in the flowers and leaves of the plant, not the seeds. Hemp seeds certainly do not produce buzz-inducing THC, and they contain only trace amounts of CBD, if any.
So, without the potential for a high or for pain relief, where’s the thrill in hemp seeds?
Nutrition and flavor! That’s where.
Mightier Than Meat
Tiny though they are, hemp seeds are nutritional powerhouses.
At 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoon serving, hemp seeds offer more protein per ounce than any form of animal protein, plus all six essential amino acids.
High in healthy fats—13 grams per serving—they have a rich, clean, buttery flavor that is quite delicious. They definitely do not have the skunky, funky, weedy aroma that is characteristic of hemp buds and leaves.
Like flax seeds, whole hemp seeds in their natural state have a dense, crunchy hull, which makes them challenging to eat, and impedes nutrient absorption, too. So, most companies that market hemp seed products have done the work and hulled them for us. What consumers get are hemp seed kernels, brilliantly rebranded and sold as “hemp hearts.”
Hemp hearts are disc-shaped, translucent ivory with darker speckles and about the size of pinheads. By any name, they’re edible, enjoyable, and won’t cause anyone to fail a drug test.
A sprinkle of hemp hearts adds munch, punch, and a solid dose of plant-based nutrition to many dishes. They can go savory or sweet, and they’re a satisfying nutty alternative for those with tree nut allergies.
Their luscious taste and buttery texture make them a nice substitute for grated cheese, a big plus for lactose intolerant patients. And they’re a soy-free form plant-based protein.
Substitute hemp hearts for croutons for a satisfying and gluten-free soup or salad accent.
On the sweet side, hemp hearts can replace high-sugar, high-fat processed granola as a topping for oatmeal, fruit, or acai bowls.
Emerald Green Oil
Cold-pressed hemp seeds produce a rich, emerald green, mildly flavored oil that’s loaded with nutritional benefits.
But it’s not CBD oil. Pure hemp seed oil is non-psychoactive and made from hemp seeds, end of story.
CBD oil, aka “full-spectrum hemp oil,” is extracted from hemp flowers, leaves, and stems, and can contain up to 40% CBD, but little to no THC (less than 1%).
That said, there are some unethical marketers out there taking pure hemp oil, adding small amounts of synthetic CBD and cannabis terpines, and then selling it as “CBD oil.”
Given the ambiguous regulations around CBD products and the FDA’s haphazard enforcement, this is likely to be a problem for some time.
Pure hemp seed oil sold for culinary use has a low-heat smoke point of 330º (just above olive oil's smoke point of 320º) and works best drizzled on as a finishing oil or incorporated into salad dressings. With its high volatility, it should be stored in a cool place away from bright light, and consumed within a year.
Outside the kitchen, hemp seed oil is also muscling into the beauty and self-care space. The seeds’ highly emollient nature makes them a desirable base for lotions, salves and cosmetics, and their oil is noncomedogenic—it won’t clog pores.
Limited studies suggest that hemp seed oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Brands including Kiehl’s are capitalizing on it, selling cannabis seed oil products to treat skin irritations and ailments including eczema, acne and rosacea.
Further research needs to be done to determine whether adding full-spectrum hemp oil to skin care products and cosmetics offers the same benefits as pure hemp seed oil. Marketers certainly would like us to believe that this is the case. CBD skincare products are flooding the retail sector, both online and in stores, typically selling at a premium price. One recent poll indicated dermatologists are as confused about cannabis skin care as most consumers.
Betting the Farm
With the market for hemp and cannabis so hot these days, raw material is in high demand. Over the last year, the amount of agricultural acreage devoted to hemp farming has increased by over 300 percent.
Since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation of low-THC industrial hemp, some small to mid-sized family farmers across the nation have begun shifting away from growing vegetables, fruit, or other medicinal herbs and converting their fields for full-scale hemp cultivation.
The potential revenue is alluring: the prices that hemp buyers and processors are now promising are sometimes ten-fold higher than what farmers earn from other crops.
But it’s a high-risk play. Starter plants and feminized seeds—male plants are unwanted—are expensive, and many seed suppliers require farmers to sign highly restrictive non-compete contracts. Since the demand is so high, plant theft is a common occurrence. Yes, people really will literally tear up sections of a farmer’s fields at night, in the hope of making a few bucks.
As more farmers and massive agricultural operations get into hemp cultivation, today’s shortage could become tomorrow’s surplus, with sudden price drops that could leave some novice hemp farmers wishing they’d stuck with heirloom vegetables.
However the economics play out, there’s no question that the proliferation of hemp and cannabis products will continue to grow.
Also forecast to grow: canna-confusion.
There are so many different brands out there promoting hemp-based products for nearly every benefit desired by humankind. People wishing to use hemp for health need to be careful that they’re buying pure, high-quality products.
Purity starts with the plants. As a crop, hemp excels at absorbing whatever is in its growing environment. It’s been used to remediate soil, because it is highly effective in soaking up toxins and heavy metals. That means one must be doubly careful when choosing hemp-derived nutritional products.
What’s in the water and the soil is what’s in the hemp. For that reason, hemp seed products of all stripes should be certified non-GMO or organic to guarantee purity.
The Taste Test
The nation’s current hemp-mania has led to a bumper crop of hemp seed foods and beverages.
We know that they’re going to be good for us, but how do they taste? We put a few hot products to the test.
On the beverage side, a number of brands including Pacific Foods and Living Harvest now offer hemp milk products. Like soy, almond, and rice milks, hemp milk is promoted as a vegan alternative to dairy.
Hemp milk has a rich, silky mouthfeel and is high in Omega-3s. But it hasn’t proven a winner in the flavor department. It has a slightly chalky off-note compared to other plant-based milks.
More promising is a new food product called Hempé. Essentially it is a hemp seed tempeh, and it is very good.
Tempeh is an ancient fermented soy food originally from Indonesia. Hempé’s chef/creator Chad Oliphant discovered tempeh when he studied at the Kushi Institute, the nonprofit organization dedicated to macrobiotics as a path to healing.
Given the concerns many people have about GMO soy and soy isolates, Oliphant set out to develop a soy-free alternative. The result of his efforts is a tempeh made from hemp, chia and chickpeas. It’s high in fiber, protein, and nutrient density. It’s also gluten-free, certified organic, and vegan, but with a meaty flavor and texture.
Hempé can be eaten uncooked, right out of the package. I recently served it that way at a green food festival, and people loved it. But as with soy-based tempeh, it lends itself very well to stir-frying. You can also slice it, brush it with oil, and roast it along with root vegetables for a simple and healthy autumn meal.
The current canna-craze has given birth to lots of different hemp seed burgers, hemp seed ale, and hemp seed granolas.
That’s all well and good, but here at Holistic Primary Care we enjoy our hemp straight from the heart—pure organic hemp hearts from respected brands like Manitoba Harvest and Nutiva.
Pumpkin Hemp Power Salad
Recipe by Ellen Kanner
Hemp hearts are a great addition to any kitchen. Here they add richness to greens and augment the natural nutty notes and sweetness of the roasted pumpkin in this filling and flavorful harvest season salad.
Best enjoyed warm or at room temperature, my Pumpkin Hemp Power Salad would make a welcome addition to a Thanksgiving buffet.
2 cups pumpkin or winter squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into bite-sized cubes
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cups barley, cooked and cooled
6 cups of fresh leafy greens — arugula, watercress or spinach
3 tablespoons hemp seeds
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons pumpkin seed, hemp seed oil, or olive oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons maple syrup
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
In a large bowl, combine pumpkin, onion, olive oil, smoked paprika and sea salt. Spread on baking sheet.
Roast for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The pumpkin is done when it’s turned rich brown and tender. Set aside to cool slightly.
In a small bowl, whisk together vinaigrette ingredients until emulsified. Pour over pumpkin, mix in barley and celery.
Recipe may be made a few hours ahead, and kept covered and refrigerated.
Remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature before proceeding. To assemble, gently mix in leafy greens. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon onto a platter or into a large bowl. Sprinkle hemp seeds on top.
Serves 4 to 6.