Humans have been using hemp in some form or another for more than 10,000 years. In fact, evidence of hemp seeds and oil used in food, as well as hemp cord remnants, have been found in modern-day China and Taiwan dating as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. (1)!
In the millennia since, hemp has been used for all kinds of practical purposes—such as a base for rope and paper—as well as a source of nutrition. And, according to present-day nutritionists, it remains an excellent source of protein, amino acids and fiber that many people would benefit from adding to their diets.
Differences Between Hemp and Marijuana
Before diving into the hemp’s nutrition, it’s first worth differentiating between hemp and marijuana, as people often mistakenly conflate the two. “It’s a question we get all the time,” says Jane Schwartz, a registered dietitian who, along with her business partner, Stephanie Goodman, offers nutrition coaching through Princeton, New Jersey-based The Nourishing Gurus. “But while marijuana and hemp come from the same plant family, they are not the same thing at all.”
Hemp and marijuana plants are both part of the cannabis family, but hemp contains a very low amount—less than 0.3 percent—of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis (2). Hemp seeds, from which hemp food products are derived, have absolutely no psychoactive affect on the people who eat them.
Nutritional Benefits of Hemp
What hemp does contain, however, is a boatload of nutrition. “Hemp is rich in healthy fats,” Schwartz says. “It provides essential fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can be hard to get if you’re not eating fish. These nutrients are good for brain function and cell health, so it’s important that clients work them into their diets.”
She adds that the omega-6 fatty acids are coming from a compound called GLA, or gamma linoleic acid, which can have an anti-inflammatory effect. “Hemp seeds also contain arginine, a specific amino acid linked with reducing the risk of heart disease,” Schwartz says.
Goodman, a certified nutrition consultant, says that another positive attribute of hemp is that it’s chock full of protein. “There are 10 grams of protein in just three tablespoons of hemp seeds,” she explains. “It also contains a lot of leucine, which is really good for muscle protein synthesis. This is particularly beneficial for people who exercise a lot.”
Goodman and Schwartz further explain that hemp also contains a lot of minerals, including phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, manganese and magnesium, all of which are important in a healthy, balanced diet. “That hemp contains magnesium in particular is fantastic because so few people actually get enough magnesium in their diets,” Goodman says. “Magnesium is good for heart health and bone health, and it’s good for sleep and digestion.”
Adding Hemp to Your Diet
Hemp can be purchased in several forms, but the most popular are seeds and powder. Schwartz notes that while both forms have dietary benefits, there is one marked difference: seeds tend to contain a lot less fiber than powder. This is because seeds are typically sold without their hulls, which is the part that contains fiber. Hemp powder, on the other hand, is composed of whole ground hemp seeds, hulls included. “So if our clients are looking to add more fiber to their diets, we usually recommend sticking to hemp powder,” Schwartz says.
There are other types of hemp food products, including oil and milk. Though, Schwartz is careful to mention that hemp oil is not temperature stable. “You never want to heat it. But it’s great as a replacement for olive oil in salad dressings,” she says.
Due to its many, many nutritional benefits, Schwartz and Goodman recommend hemp to almost all of their clients, and especially those who are vegetarian or vegan and may struggle to eat enough protein. “It’s really easy to add to most dishes,” Goodman notes. “It has a very mild flavor and tends to work well mixed into most foods. We recommend putting the powder in smoothies and sprinkling whole seeds over rice or oatmeal, but really, hemp works anywhere you might include nuts or seeds.”