For centuries, hemp has been grown and used for textiles, building materials, and paper, but as more and more research is conducted, findings also point to industrial hemp as an extremely valuable resource for health. As hemp-derived wellness products flood the market, you’ll find this mysterious ingredient in everything from hand creams and muscle balms to tinctures and pet products—but are there nutritional benefits to hemp, too?
Experts say yes, absolutely. An entry in the Journal of Industrial Hemp calls it a “unique nutritional package in terms of dietary oil, protein, vitamins and minerals.” Hemp seed oil is “highly unsaturated and contains both essential fatty acids,” while “the protein in hempseed is complete in that it contains all of the essential amino acids in nutritionally significant amounts.” In fact, because hemp “lacks the nutritional inhibiting factors found in soya,” it’s quickly gaining popularity as a better, easier-to-digest alternative to soy products. Especially for those who subscribe to an all-plant diet, this is amazing news.
Nonetheless, hemp comes in many different forms—and it also comes with its fair share of misconceptions, all thanks to its close association with marijuana. Before you incorporate hemp products into your diet, you should know the facts, the benefits, and the potential side-effects.
According to Molly Devine, registered dietitian and founder of Eat Your Keto, “Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant grown specifically for the use of products in applications such as food, nutrition supplements, skin care, and clothing.”
Even though the Cannabis plant is “known to have over 25,000 [different] applications,” Devine says, the seeds and the oil are the most-commonly used derivatives when it comes to nutrition. They can be eaten plain, ground up into a powder, used for cooking, or put into capsules and taken as vitamins.
“Unlike other cannabis products,” Devine says, “hemp contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).” As a result, consuming hemp as a nutritional supplement will not get you high. According to a review called The Pharmacology of Cannabis, the flowers of the cannabis plant contain the most amount of THC, while the stalk and seeds contain almost none.
On the other hand, hemp can contain cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD), which “gives it a variety of health benefits such as reduced inflammation and calming effects,” Devine says. Our bodies produce cannabinoids on their own, but when eaten, hemp provides even more nourishment for a healthy endocannabinoid system—the system that regulates homeostasis in the body. Certain fats and amino acids in hemp help with proper signaling, and since cannabinoid receptors are found all throughout the body, regulation can help memory, immune function, pain control, anxiety, and weight balance.
One of the most popular ways to consume hemp is in whole-seed form. According to Devine, “Hemp seeds are high in protein, heart-healthy fatty acids, fiber, and a host of vitamins and minerals including essential B vitamins.” They can also “serve as a neurological protector,” “help treat skin conditions” from the inside-out, and “reduce other painful inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.”
What does the science say? Despite the fact that humans have been eating hemp seeds for hundreds of years, scientific evidence has been limited until recently—but new studies have found that hemp seeds are great for cardiovascular health, immunity, and inflammation.
Hemp seeds are brown and roughly the size of popcorn kernels, but when you bite into them, you’ll find a soft, lighter-colored interior. They have a nutty taste, and are extremely easy to incorporate into your diet. “Hemp seeds can be eaten on their own or blended into smoothies, sprinkled on salads, and mixed into baked goods,” Devine says. Like almonds, they can also be blended into a milk-like consistency. “Use whole, un-hulled hemp seeds to increase fiber content, which can aid gut health, encourage regularity, reduce spikes in blood sugar, and lower cholesterol levels.”
Much like protein mixes made from peas or brown rice, hemp protein is made by grinding up the seeds into a fine powder. For that reason, it contains many of the same benefits as whole hemp seeds, but is easier to ingest in larger amounts because it dissolves in liquid. It’s often compared to whey powder (as both provide adequate protein and amino acids), but since whey is created from the watery by-produce of cheese, hemp protein is a great alternative for vegans or those who are sensitive to dairy products.
According to Devine, “One tablespoon of hemp seeds contains about 9.5 grams of protein, making it higher in protein than both flax and chia seeds. Hemp contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it one of the few complete plant sources of protein and an ideal component of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In fact, by weight, hemp contains the same amount of protein found in animal products such as beef and lamb!”
That being said, hemp protein is also suitable for those who eat meat because it’s packed with soluble and insoluble fiber— something that meat-heavy diets are often lacking—but it’s much easier to digest than most other legumes and vegetable-based proteins. Thanks to the aforementioned amino acids (which are necessary for rebuilding muscle-mass, specifically after a workout), hemp protein powder makes for a great supplement for all types of athletes, whether they eat animal products or not.
So what’s the best way to incorporate hemp protein into your diet? For this one, the possibilities are almost endless. Hemp protein powder can be mixed into smoothies, juices, nutrition shakes, or even your morning coffee. Since the consistency is easy to work with, you can also get creative and add it to cereal, brownies, protein bars, and muffins. Usually, the finer the protein powder, the easier it is to incorporate into your recipes.
Last but not least, you can ingest hemp in oil-form. Made by grinding and pressing hemp seeds, it’s high in essential fat and amino acids. According to Devine, it’s also a great source of important minerals — specifically “phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc.” Finally, thanks to the balanced ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, hemp seed oil is “heart-protective and anti-inflammatory.”
It’s important to note that CBD oil is not the same as hemp seed oil. Because CBD oil is used primarily for its mood-regulating and pain-relieving benefits, it’s derived from all different parts of the cannabis plants and is designed to have high levels of cannabidiol. Hemp seed oil, on the other hand, is derived from only the seeds, and is utilized for its nutritional benefits.
Use of hemp seed oil dates back to Neolithic China, where it was used to fight skin inflammation, ease constipation, and boost energy levels. Now, it’s most commonly used like any other vegetable oil— for cooking and drizzling. Thanks to its nutty flavor, it can be used for marinades, on salads, in homemade mayonnaise, or to sauté vegetables. That being said, since hemp seed oil has a relatively low smoking point, prolonged temperatures above 330 degrees Fahrenheit could destroy its flavor and health-giving benefits. For that reason, it shouldn’t be used for frying or baking. Hemp seed oil is also marketed as a beauty product for skin and hair, but if you plan on ingesting it, look for brands that are pure, cold-pressed, non-GMO, and organic.
Finally, if you don’t love the taste, you can also ingest it vitamin- or supplement-form. Since most come in easy-to-swallow capsules, you’re getting all the benefits of hemp seed oil without having to put it on your food.
“Since hemp contains such low levels of THC (only about 0.3%), this use of hemp products will not register on a drug test, which checks for levels of the psychoactive chemical component,” Devine says.
Pertaining to the side-effects, Devine says that “hemp seed products are a wonderful addition to anyone’s dietary regimen.” Still, as with any nutritional changes, it’s important to incorporate supplements gradually and pay attention to the way your body responds. A sudden high intake of fat or fiber could potentially cause diarrhea and other digestive issues. Furthermore, cannabis can cause sensitivities and allergic reactions in some people, so it’s always a good idea to start slow and check with your doctor if you experience any negative side-effects.
These hemp-based foods and supplements contain high levels of fiber, fatty acids, protein, vitamins, and minerals.