What is Hemp Seed?
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What if I told you there was a superfood, known for thousands of years yet overlooked by most until recently, that is one of the most complete and healthful nutritional sources science has ever studied?
Chances are you would guess a lot of different vegetables and plants before arriving at this powerhouse's true identity: the mighty hemp seed.
What is hemp seed, though?
Hemp seed is part of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa L, also known as industrial hemp. This plant is not marijuana. It is a different variant of that species and contains such a low concentration of marijuana's psychoactive compound, THC, that it does not engage the brain receptors marijuana does.
Hemp seeds are about the size of popcorn kernels and have a toothy, crunchy texture. When shelled, the seed nut (also called a heart) has a nutty flavor.
Hemp History and Production
The hemp plant has been cultivated by humans for 12,000 years, making it one of our earliest agricultural endeavors. Hemp seeds' benefits have been known for at least 3,000 years, notably used in ancient China for health and medicine.
China still produces a quarter of the world's hemp, but France has become the leading grower with 70% of all hemp coming from there. It is a fast growing plant, and many countries have domestic hemp production.
Western science has been slower to pay hemp seeds the attention they deserve, but in the last decade or so some studies have begun unlocking their secrets.
Hemp Seed Nutrition
Hemp seeds contain an astonishing number of important compounds that carry benefits for humans. In this section we'll discuss 7 of them and what they mean for your health.
1. Essential Fatty Acids
One of the most exciting areas of hemp seed research concerns their high content (about 40% by weight) of polyunsaturated and essential fatty acids, which have broad-reaching effects on health.
Essential fatty acids are so named because the body doesn't produce them, meaning we need to get them in our diets. Hemp seeds contain all eight of them. Two of the most important are linoleic and alpha-linoleic, which our bodies turn into omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are well known to be vital to overall health.
As important is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that hemp seeds contain. The modern Western diet has left most of us with a high 6-to-3 ratio. Hemp seeds have a perfectly balanced 2:1 to 3:1 range of omega 6-to-3 fatty acids.
The authors of a 2010 study in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism theorize that a diet with more of this balance of fatty acids could combat many chronic diseases in the West: diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and others.
2. Gamma-linoleic acid
Another important fatty acid, gamma-linoleic acid can combat the symptoms of PMS and Menopause by lessening the effect of the hormone prolactin.
Twenty-five percent of hemp seeds' caloric content is protein, more than found in chia or flaxseed. Hemp seeds are a complete protein, meaning they have all 20 amino acids. This includes nine essential amino acids which, like essential fatty acids, we need but don't make in our bodies.
The protein in hemp seeds is easily digestible. Thirty grams of hemp seeds give you 11 grams of protein.
Hemp seeds are a complete protein, meaning they have all 20 amino acids
One of the amino acids in hemp seeds worth noting is arginine. The body uses arginine to make nitric oxide, which opens and relaxes blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and helping avoid the effects of cardiovascular disease.
Whole hemp seeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. The former works in your digestive system to keep things running smoothly, and the latter adds bulk in your colon to promote regularity.
This fiber is mostly lost by shelling or pressing the seeds.
6. Vitamins and Minerals
Hemp seeds are a good source of vitamins A, C, E, several B-vitamins (B-6, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folate), phosphorous, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and beta-carotene.
Vitamin E is also known as tocopherol, an antioxidant which has been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer's in some patients.
Hemp seeds also contain the antioxidant phytol. Antioxidants help prevent some cancers by removing free radicals from our cells.
How To Eat Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds are available whole, shelled, pressed into oil, or processed into a protein supplement.
1. Whole Hemp Seeds
Consuming the entire hemp seed will give you the complete list of benefits this superfood has to offer.
They can be eaten by themselves, but many find their crunchy texture easier to consume in recipes. You can put them in any dish that calls for nuts or seeds, even adding them to sweet treats like fudge.
2. Shelled Hemp Seeds (Hemp Hearts)
Also called hearts, shelled hemp seeds are easier to chew than whole seeds. The only health benefit you sacrifice is fiber.
Hearts can be added to cooked food or sprinkled on top of salads, cereals, or other cold dishes, or eaten alone.
Additionally, hearts can be processed and used in making milk and ice cream.
Here's a great video showing some ways to prepare hemp hearts:
3. Hemp Protein Powder
If you're mainly looking for a plant-based source of protein, you can buy hemp protein in a variety of powders. You can dissolve it in liquids or blend it in smoothies. Some hemp protein retains the seed's fiber, but others don't.
4. Hemp Seed Oil
Probably the most versatile and popular ways to consume hemp seed, this oil has all the healthy ingredients of hemp hearts. It can be used in recipes as a butter substitute, in salad dressings or dips, in place of other oils, and more.
The 2010 scientific study mentioned above recommends consuming 30 milliliters (about two tablespoons) of hemp seed oil per day to get maximum health benefits.
While science has only scratched the surface in studying hemp seed, what has been revealed so far is a superfood with an excellent balance of essential fats, proteins, vitamins, and fiber that all have proven benefits to our health.
Hemp seeds could become a significant contributor to warding off and treating the most chronic diseases in society, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Additionally, hemp seeds come in a variety of forms for easy incorporation into any diet. All of this makes them the very definition of a superfood.