Humble hemp isn’t just for making rope, as Alessandra Felice discovers…
The surprising health and environmental benefits of hemp
Hemp is a beautiful and nutritious plant originating in China and Central Asia and spread to the Mediterranean and Europe. The Chinese used hemp for clothing and paper while Europeans were using it for food and textiles, so it has always had numerous purposes.
Hemp, or cannabis sativa, is not to be confused with the cannabis plants that serve as sources of the drug marijuana and the drug preparation hashish. Although all three products contain THC, a compound that produces psychoactive effects in humans, the variety of cannabis cultivated for hemp has only small amounts of it compared to the ones grown for the other end products.
Hemp seeds are found in the top of the plant and are made up of approximately 25% protein, 35% oil, 29% dietary fibre, along with a mix of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Shelled hemp seeds, also called hemp hearts, can be eaten raw and you’ll see them sprinkled on salads, porridge, yoghurts and chia puddings or blended in smoothies. The seeds and flowers are also used in organic body care and other nutraceuticals, while the fibres and stalks are used in clothing, paper, biofuel, plastics and construction materials.
Hemp is a plant full of nutritious properties that we can benefit from just by daily including these little seeds into our diet. Hemp seeds contain high levels of vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene and are a rich source of plant based protein, minerals like magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, phosphorus, potassium and fibre. Plus hemp has been found to have an ideal ratio and balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with the reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure, protecting the nervous system from damage and contributing to lower systemic inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids, that are usually considered pro-inflammatory, still have some beneficial functions, as they’re involved in skin and hair growth, bone health, brain function and metabolism.
One of the most well-known properties of hemp seeds is that they are a great source of plant based protein (2-3 tablespoon, provide about 11 grams) and they contain all the essential amino acids that aren’t produced in the body and need to be obtained from diet.
Complete protein sources are quite rare among plants (another is quinoa), so it’s no wonder hemp protein powder is a top choice for plant proteins along with pea and rice.
Whole hemp seeds are also a good source of both soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre is a source of nutrients for the beneficial digestive bacteria and contribute to stabilise blood sugar levels, while insoluble fibre helps food and waste pass through the gut. Hemp hearts though contain little fibre, as it’s mainly present in the outer shell, so maybe include both shelled and unshelled in your daily eats.
These seeds are so versatile and you can use them in so many different ways. Unshelled ones are perfect to add to granolas, yoghurt or porridge for a bit of crunch. Shelled seeds are great to add to creamy dressings instead of nuts, to raw hummus dips or you can turn them into hemp seed butter to eat by the spoonful or dollop on your smoothie bowl. Mix in some cacao or carob powder, cinnamon, vanilla or lucuma powder to give a touch of sweetness and taste to your butter.
You could also use hemp protein in post workout smoothies or homemade protein bars and truffles, as well as mix hemp flour into baked goods like cookies and muffins.
Just like nuts such as almonds, you can use these seeds to make hemp milk. Simply blend 2-3 cups of water (depending how thick you want your milk) with 1 cup of shelled hemp seeds, add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla and you have a super creamy plant milk. Use it for smoothies, hot drinks or to dip your favourite cookies in! If you prefer it sweeter, blend in a date or a touch of maple syrup and, just like hemp seed butter, you can add spices, cacao or other superfoods you love.
Hemp oil can be drizzled on salads, soups or blended into dressing to give a nutty taste to your dishes, and you’ll also find it in skincare products. It is considered to be the optimum requirement for healthy skin due to the fact that it contains all of the 21 known amino acids and offers the perfectly balanced 3:1 ratio of omega-6 linoleic to omega-3 alpha-linolenic essential fatty acids. In addition, hemp seed oil is also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids like gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and oleic acid, which can help to reduce the symptoms of atopic dermatitis along with providing a good supply of antioxidants, nutrients such as vitamin E and beta-carotene, essential for skin structure and health.
The omega 3s have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that contribute to the reduction in symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as acne or dermatitis and hemp oil is indicated to decrease skin dryness and alleviate itching and irritation.
You may have heard of medicinal uses of CBD hemp oil, which is derived from a natural botanical concentrate that is high in the compound cannabidiol, CBD. CBD is the second most common compound in hemp after THC, but it’s not psychoactive. Even though more research needs to be done on its effects, some studies report benefits in reducing stress and anxiety states and improving sleep in cases of insomnia. CBD oil may also reduce the inflammation that can make neurodegenerative symptoms worse and its effect on brain receptors may also help manage pain in conditions such as arthritis, muscle and chronic pain. Hopefully, more medical studies will come out to prove its beneficial uses for various ailments.
Recent years have also seen a rise in hemp clothing and the use of hemp in the fashion industry. And there are quite a few good reasons why. Hemp is highly sustainable, as it grows well in a variety of soil conditions, making the use of fertilisers and pesticides unnecessary. Hemp production has minimal contribution to the greenhouse effect and it’s basically a carbon-neutral product, because it naturally absorbs CO2 as it grows, balancing out any gasses released during fabric production.
In addition, the absence of chemicals and pesticides during its growth makes it a non-irritable fabric, ideal for wearing close to the skin. We’ll definitely see more of this amazing sustainable plant on the market, probably in places we wouldn’t expect it.