What is hemp?

“Hemp is not marijuana”

A lot of negative perception surrounds hemp, due to its association with marijuana (which some people feel is a detrimental substance). However, the hemp plant, botanical name Cannabis Sativa L., is just one variety of many Cannabis strains (1). Hemp crops used today for food and fabric contain a much smaller concentration of the psychoactive component, THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) than varieties used recreationally. In Canada and the European Union, only varieties containing less than 0.3% THC in their flowers can legally be farmed, while marijuana flowers typically contain 3 to 20%. In the U.S., debate over the threat of hemp farming to health and safety, keeps the crops pretty much illegal (a license to grow crops can be obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration, but it’s usually refused). Overall, hemp food products that you find on the shelves today in the U.S. and Canada come from plants grown mostly in Canada where farmers have been allowed to grow them since 1998 under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Hemp is a very versatile plant. Its fibers, core, seeds and flowers can be used as raw materials to form products ranging from food to paper, to clothing and carpeting. Some of us even have had the pleasure of wearing hemp clothing, derived from hemp fibers, which is surprisingly comfortable and versatile.

Hemp: An eco-friendly plant

A fabulous property of hemp is that it’s an eco-friendly crop that rarely needs pesticide treatments for bugs or herbicides for weeds (1). This way, consumers can be assured that they chemical residues are avoided in their hemp foods. Also, many hemp companies certify that their plants contain no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and/or are grown organically.

Why is hemp so important?

Healthy food with healthy fats

The fatty-acid composition is one of the key properties of hemps nutritional benefits (2, 3). The oil, which makes up half of the weight of the seeds, contains 75% essential fatty acids, of which ~20% are the omega-3, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). It also contains ~3% of the healthy omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), and ~1% of the rising omega-3 fatty acid star, stearidonic acid (SDA).  Overall, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of hemp oil is a fabulous 3:1, while most modern diets are an alarming 10:1, or more.

This unique ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ensures that you can consume the oil without needing to balance it with any other lipid product.  High content of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, relative to omega-3s are associated with numerous health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases (4). Therefore, hemp oil alone offers benefits that few other fats provide. In fact, due to the unique fatty acid profile of hemp, it has the power itself to treat atopic dermatitis in humans (5).

Another fantastic “fat” property of hemp oil is that it contains a high content of naturally-occurring vitamin E compounds (tocotrienols and tocopherols) (1,2,3). These free-radical scavenging antioxidants protect the oil from oxidation and rancidity. Typical levels of vitamin E per 100 grams of oil are about 100 to 150 mg. Therefore, one to two tablespoons of hemp oil can meet the daily requirements of vitamin E for healthy adults (DRI: 15 mg/day).

In addition to the above fat-soluble compounds, the oil of hemp also contains high concentrations of phytosterols known to have beneficial effects on health; chlorophyll which is shown to be anti-carcinogenic; carotenes necessary for healthy eyesight and growth; and lecithin for ideal cell-membrane composition and brain function (1).

New ways to bump up blood EPA levels

The spotlight on omega-3 fats is usually given to the longer chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA, found abundantly in cold-water fatty fish and seafood. These fats have numerous cardiovascular and metabolic benefits that people tout and love. The other omega-3s are often down-played (like ALA) because they don’t appear to have the same physiological properties as EPA and DHA. For this reason, fish oil is an increasingly popular supplement that people consider a staple of their health regimen. But, fish sources are quickly becoming depleted and alternative sources of long chain omega-3 fats are desired.

Interestingly, the omega-3 fatty acid, SDA, is now being recognized as another beneficial fat, and is considered a “pro-EPA” fat (6) When humans consume SDA, blood content of EPA in phospholipids can increase two-fold (7,8). SDA is an intermediate in the omega-3 pathway from ALA to EPA (Figure 3), but it does not accumulate in blood lipids like ALA (9). So, this special omega-3 fat is converted completely to its downstream products, most importantly EPA (7, 9). The ability of SDA to increase EPA blood levels leads to an increase in the overall blood omega-3 index, which is considered an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease (10). Oils rich in SDA, such as hemp oil, provide a vegetarian source of SDA and sustainable option for obtaining ideal omega-3 fat levels in the body, which can reduce disease risk.

GLA: Control your weight with this unique omega-6 fat

Gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, is another significant component of hemp oil (1%–6%, depending on species of Cannibis). GLA is a beneficial omega-6 fatty acid known to affect vital metabolic roles in humans, ranging from control of inflammation and vascular tone to initiation of contractions during childbirth. GLA has been found to alleviate psoriasis, atopic eczema, and PMS, and may also benefit cardiovascular, psychiatric, and immunological disorders. Ageing and disease (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) have been shown to impair GLA metabolism, making dietary sources desirable.

Recently, Dr Stephen Phinney and colleagues at the University of California have also shown that GLA supplementation was helpful for body weight regulation after significant weight loss (11). These researchers studied obese women who recently lost a large amount of weight (~60 lbs). Based on previous animal research showing that GLA was helpful for appetite control and prevention of weight-regain, they administered 890 mg of GLA from 5 g of borage oil to each subject (to give ~1 g of GLA to each person), or a placebo (olive oil), for one year following weight loss. The women who didn’t receive the GLA regained over 16 lbs in that subsequent year, whereas those who did receive GLA only regained 4 lbs. The proposed mechanism for this effect of GLA was via one of two hypotheses:

  1. Increased Arachadonic Acid (AA) levels in blood lipids due to GLA supplementation. Obese individuals and those with Metabolic Syndrome are classically found with depressed AA levels in tissue lipids (12,13). Further, increased AA in blood lipids is related to enhanced lipid sensitivity, down-regulation of lipogenesis, up-regulation of lipid oxidation, and increased leptin secretion (10,11)
  2. Conversion of GLA to its elongation product, DGLA, which has anti-inflammatory effects, via production of beneficial eicosaniods that may operate in weight gain suppression (11).

Hemp oil contains ~450 mg of GLA per tablespoon. Thus, to achieve an intake of ~1 g of GLA to help prevent weight-regain, all you need is 2 tablespoons of hemp oil per day mixed into smoothies or as a salad dressing.  Although you can achieve the same dose of GLA with a smaller dose of borage or evening primrose oil, hemp oil is the only natural food oil that doesn’t require packing into supplement form. Also, it’s a higher-yielding crop that is much easier to cultivate.

Hemp: A healthy protein source

Hemp seeds are one of the few vegetarian protein sources providing a complete spectrum of all the essential amino acids. The seeds contain 25%–35% protein, and some of the hemp protein isolate products on the market today contain as much as 70% protein per 100 grams – this is a similar macronutrient breakdown to whey protein isolate with 21 grams of protein per serving, and minimal carbohydrates.  It also mixes very well in water or juice and compliments the great taste of berries in your favorite smoothie.

The protein in hemp comes from two high-quality storage proteins, edestin and albumin, which are easily digested. When compared to soy protein isolate, the protein in hemp has actually been deemed superior due to its higher content of most of the essential amino acids and methionine, cysteine and arginine (14). Overall, the protein makeup of hemp is highly complete, highly absorbable, hypo-allergenic and a great way to get more sustainable, earth-friendly amino acids into your diet.

Hemp: A stellar high-fiber choice

Hemp fibers are usually saved for production of durable fabrics and specialty papers, leaving the seeds as the food byproduct (1, 14). Of the whole seeds, about half to 25% of the total carbohydrate content is fiber, both insoluble and soluble forms. Some brands of hemp protein powder extracts even contain up to 14 grams of fiber per serving!  Theoretically, hemp food products could supply a person with all the fiber they need in one day.

What you should know about hemp

Why are hemp food products slightly green?

The green color of hemp oil, hemp butter, and hemp proteins is due to the high content of chlorophyll within the mature seed that is not destroyed during low-temperature processing of hemp foods. Although this chlorophyll can quicken auto-oxidation of oil exposed to light, as long as the oil is kept in a cold, dark container, this won’t be an issue. Benefits of chlorophyll in food include protection against several types of cancer, including colon and breast (15). So, when you try your hemp oil, butter and protein powder, know that being green is good.

Hemp seeds aren’t really seeds, but they pack a nutritional punch.

The fruit of hemp is not a true seed, but an “achene”, a tiny nut covered by a hard shell.  Whole hemp seed contains approximately 20-25% protein, 25-35% oil, 20-30% carbohydrates and 10-15% insoluble fiber (1) as well as a rich array of minerals, particularly phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, sulfur and calcium, along with modest amounts of iron and zinc (2).  It is also a fair source of carotene, a Vitamin A precursor.

The seeds are small, soft and round, making them easy to chew and digest. They taste similar to a pine nut, but contain a different array of beneficial nutrients.

What are the best uses for hemp oil?

Because of the highly unsaturated nature of the oil, it’s extremely sensitive to oxidative rancidity under heat and light. For this reason, it’s best not to use the oil for baking or frying. However, go ahead and use hemp as a healthy dipping oil, on salads or added to smoothies.

What other food products are made from hemp?

It seems that with advances in technology and production, the possibilities for hemp food are endless. Here are some of the most popular food products that you can find readily available in stores today.

Hemp Beverage – An excellent substitute to Rice, Soy or Cow’s milk. Use as you would on cereal, in smoothies, or just as a tasty drink.

Hemp Butter – Because it’s not made from a nut, it’s acceptable for those with tree nut allergies. Plus, it tastes great on toasted Ezekiel bread.

Hemp Seeds – Wonderful addition to salads, or simply eaten as a snack.

What’s a tasty hemp smoothie recipe I can make today?

Easy Berry-licious Hemp Smoothie


2/3 Cup water

One scoop Hemp Pro 70

1 Tbsp Hemp Seed Oil

1/3 Cup frozen mixed berries

½ medium banana


Mix all ingredients in a blender, pour into a cup, and enjoy! Easy and tasty.

Nutrition: 360 calories, 22 g protein, 27 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 19 g fat, 14 g polyunsaturated fat

Summary and Recommendations

Hemp foods are widely under-appreciated, but carry so many health benefits. They’re an earth-friendly way to achieve more protein, healthy fats and fiber in your diet. Most people can benefit from these products in more ways than one:

  • A tasty, organic, vegetarian and vegan food
  • Tolerable by those with nut allergies
  • Provides a wide array of essential omega-3 and 6 fatty acids
  • A way to bump up dietary fiber intake
  • A new protein choice for smoothies and baking
  • Supports hemp growing for a healthier,  happier planet

Hemp Food Product Links

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Products

Finola Hemp Seed variety

Global Hemp

Nutiva Hemp Products

Ruth’s Hemp Foods

Living Harvest Hemp Foods


1)     http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/v5-284.html

Hemp: A new crop with new uses for North America. p. 284–326. Small, E. and D. Marcus. 2002.  In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

2)     Hemp seed oil: A source of valuable essential fatty acids.  Deferne, J.L. and D. W. Pate, 1996.  Journal of the International Hemp Association 3(1): 1, 4-7.

3)      Hempseed as a nutritional resource: An overview. Callaway JC. Euphytica. 140: 65-72, 2004.

4)     The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Simopoulos AP. Exp Biol Med. 2008 Jun;233(6):674-88.

5)      Efficacy of dietary hempseed oil in patients with atopic dermatitis. Callaway JC et al. J. Dermatol. Treat. 2005, 16, 87-94.

6)      The synthesis and accumulation of stearidonic acid in transgenic plants: a novel source of ‘heart-healthy’ omega-3 fatty acids. Ruiz-López N et al. 2009 Sep;7(7):704-16

7)      Dietary stearidonic acid is a long chain (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acid with potential health benefits. Whelan J. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):5-10.

8)      Stearidonic acid-enriched soybean oil increased the omega-3 index, an emerging cardiovascular risk marker. Harris WS et al. Lipids. 2008 Sep;43(9):805-11.

9)     Metabolism of stearidonic acid in human subjects: comparison with the metabolism of other n-3 fatty acids. James MJ, Ursin VM, Cleland LG. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 May;77(5):1140-5

10)  Tissue omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio and risk for coronary artery disease. Harris WS, Assaad B, Poston WC. Am J Cardiol 2006;98:19i-26i

11)  Gamma-linolenate reduces weight regain in formerly obese humans. Schirmer MA, Phinney SD. J. Nutr. 2007 Jun;137(6):1430-5.

12)  Obesity and weight loss alter serum polyunsaturated lipids in humans. Phinney SD, Davis PG, Johnson SB, Holman RT. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;53:831-838

13)  Erythrocyte Fatty Acid Composition and the Metabolic Syndrome: A National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute GOLDN Study. Edmond K. Kabagambe et al. Clinical Chemistry. 2008;54:154-162

14)  Physicochemical and functional properties of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) protein isolate. Tang CH, Ten Z, Wang XS, Yang XQ. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 15;54(23):8945-50

15)   http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/15/4/717.full.pdf Heme and Chlorophyll Intake and Risk of Colorectal Cancer in the Netherlands Cohort Study. Balder HF et al. Cancer Epid. Biomarker Prev. 2006; 15(4): 7171-25.