Helpful hemp

Hemp (Cannabis sativa) has a slightly seedy reputation these days, depending on who you talk to, largely because it can be a source of the drug “marijuana”. Whatever you think about the narcotic effects of marijuana, it is ironic that we have discarded a plant that was actually one of the early human foods and there was nothing hallucinogenic about it. To remind us of the value of hemp a new scientific analysis has highlighted the many healthy ingredients in hemp seed oil.

Hemp is arguably one of the oldest crops known to humankind. While hemp originated in Northern India, the oldest known records we have of hemp farming go back 8,000 years in Persia. Hemp industrialisation began about 5000 years ago in Central Asia and North Africa, in ancient Persia, China and Egypt. Hemp fibre has been relied on for millennia because it is cheaper than silk and incredibly strong. From at least the 5th Century BCE until the late 19th Century CE ship sails and riggings were made from hemp and it is still used on some ships because of its resistance to mildew and weathering and because it remains pliable in extreme conditions where plastic based ropes become brittle and crack. Christopher Columbus carried hemp seed on his fleet for use in case of shipwreck to grow crops for raw materials and for use as a food source. Hemp seed oil is said to burn brighter than any other oil when used in oil lamps.

The big problem of course is that an illegal drug can be made from hemp. The key chemicals in hemp in this regard are THC (tetrahydro-cannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). While medicinally the foliage and leaves of high THC plants have been used as a sedative and narcotic drug, when growing hemp for food or for industrial use or for textiles, varieties are chosen and agricultural conditions are provided, that significantly reduce the THC levels in the plant. Hemp can be grown to increase THC levels for the drug (and medicinal) market, or to increase the CBD levels for the food and industrial market. While these may be similar compounds, THC has hallucinogenic properties while CBD inhibits any hallucinogenic activity. It is impossible to get ‘high’ on industrial or hemp food seeds. THC and CBD compete for activity in the body and hemp grown for food has little to no hallucinogenic properties.

Indeed, the new analysis shows that hemp seed oil can be very healthy.

The new analysis showed that hemp seed oil contains sterols, aliphatic alcohols, and linolenic acids. These linolenic acids are omega-3 fatty acids that are shown to have many health benefits including reducing heart disease risk. Sterols are useful in lowering cholesterol and the aliphatic alcohols found can lower cholesterol as well as keep blood thin by stopping platelets clumping.

We already knew that hemp seed oil contained many of these components but this is a mainstream study bringing this knowledge together. As well as the nutrients mentioned in this study hemp seed is rich in vitamins A, C, D and E and beta carotene. It is high in minerals including phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulphur and calcium with smaller but adequate amounts of iron and zinc. In terms of the ‘macronutrients’, hemp seeds contain 20-25 per cent protein, 20-30 per cent carbohydrates, 25-35 per cent oil and 10-15 per cent insoluble fibre. The protein is similar to soy and can provide an adequate source of this major nutrient for vegetarians.

Hemp seed oil does not contain the protein of the whole seed but it is a useful nutritional package that also has a pleasant nutty flavour making it ideal for use in salad dressings and foods like dips. You should not fry with hemp seed oil because the heating breaks down the healthy components. In the end, hemp seed oil is not so seedy after all.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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