Hemp is one of nature?s most bountiful gifts, offering its tensile strength and soft touch to products such as rope, textiles, paper and construction materials. But as useful as it is for industry, hemp is also exceptionally nutritious. Rich in protein, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates, hemp is a uniquely balanced food. And, because hemp is naturally resistant to pests, it can easily be grown without the use of chemical pesticides.
But despite all of these clear nutritional benefits, the use of hemp in foods was limited until recently, due to the Drug Enforcement Administration?s protracted battle to have hemp foods declared illegal. Finally last winter, the government dropped its three-year fight against hemp foods. At long last, natural foods shoppers can reap all of the benefits of hemp foods, and retailers can be confident in selling them.
Hemp is currently available in a variety of natural foods products, including oils, nuts, nut butters, breads, waffles, cereals, protein powders, flours and energy bars. According to Mike Fata, co-founder of Manitoba Harvest, a Canadian manufacturer of hemp-based foods, hemp has a variety of unique nutritional properties. ?Hemp protein contains all of the essential amino acids at a ratio closer to ?complete? sources of protein like meat, milk and eggs than all other seeds except soy,? Fata says. ?And hemp?s overall protein content of 34.6 percent is higher than that found in many other seeds, nuts, meats, dairy products, fish or poultry.?
Fata says one of the things that make hemp so nutritionally rich is that it contains a type of protein known as edestin. ?Sixty-six percent of the proteins in hemp are edestin, which are easily digestible, and act as precursors to such vital body components as hormones, hemoglobin, enzymes and antibodies,? Fata says. ?Hemp?s edestin structure is the highest in the plant kingdom, greater than soy.? He notes that hemp protein also contains high levels of the branched-chain amino acids that are important for the metabolism of exercising muscles.
Hemp is also an excellent source of essential fatty acids, according to Kevin Greenwood, marketing manager for Nature?s Path, a manufacturer of hemp waffles, hemp granola and hemp granola bars. ?Hemp seeds are a significant source of beneficial unsaturated fatty acids, usually in a high percentage—typically 75 percent,? Greenwood says. While hemp does not contain EPA or DHA—the fatty acid components recommended by the American Heart Association for reducing triglycerides—it packs a lot of alpha-linolenic acid, a precursor to EPA and DHA.
?Between 15 percent to 25 percent of these essential fatty acids are omega-3 [ALAs]. Omega-6 linoleic acid is also well represented.? Greenwood says the seeds also provide other phytonutrients, including phytosterols and carotenes.
Rounding out hemp?s nutritional benefits, a healthy 35 percent of it is dietary fiber, which Fata claims is the highest level of any commercial flour grain. Hemp is also high in the natural antioxidants vitamin E, vitamin C and chlorophyll.
Fata says that 1 to 2 tablespoons of hemp seed oil or 4 to 5 tablespoons of shelled hemp seed will provide the daily dose of essential fats. ?Two scoops of hemp protein powder delivers a whopping 15 grams of complete protein and five grams of EFAs,? he says.
Cooking with hemp
So what does hemp actually taste like? ?Hemp seeds are about the size of sunflower seeds and have a subtle, nutty, rich flavor,? Greenwood says. ?The texture is soft—not unlike sunflower seeds.?
?People liken the taste to a cross between a sunflower seed and a pine nut,? Fata agrees. ?Shelled hemp seed nut has a soft texture and attractive appearance, somewhat like a sesame seed. Hemp oil has a distinctive emerald green color.?
Fata says that hemp food products such as oil, nuts, nut butter and protein powder made with hemp flour have a wide variety of culinary uses. ?For example, hemp oil is a wonderful base for salad dressings,? he says. ?Hemp nuts are delicious sprinkled over salads, cereal, yogurt or in soup. Hemp nut butter is a creamy spread for sandwiches, breads, bagels or crackers. And hemp protein powder makes great fruit smoothies and is also a healthy flour addition to fresh baked items.? Fata warns, though, that hemp foods need to be cooked at a low temperature—below 350 degrees—in order to preserve the nutritional value.
Fata also explains why hemp is easy to grow organically. ?Hemp is naturally pest-resistant, and because hemp plants grow rapidly and close together, they crowd out weeds and don?t need herbicides,? he says. ?Hemp?s only fertilizer requirement is nitrogen, which can be provided by manure. Hemp is also a soil-building plant that?s excellent for crop rotation. Hemp cultivation generates virtually no waste, and its byproducts are commercially useful.?
Spreading the good news
Greenwood says that Nature?s Path?s hemp products sell very well compared with its other SKUs. ?Our HempPlus Granola is our second-highest-selling granola,? he says. The best way to introduce customers to hemp foods is to get them to actually try some, as well as educate them about hemp?s myriad nutritional benefits. ?Stores should call attention to the nutritious benefits of hemp seed [with] shelf talkers, end-aisle displays and information within in-store magazines,? says Greenwood.
?Demos with information and samples are the best way for customers to be turned on to hemp foods,? Fata concurs. ?After they learn about the health benefits and sample the flavor, it?s easy to turn them into customers for life.?
Hemp foods offer retailers a new sales opportunity and exemplify everything natural foods stores stand for—a food that?s as healthy for the planet as it is for customers.
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2003). Visit her Web site: www.whatareyouhungryfor.net for more information.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 72