The healthy heavyweight

The Internet is full of dietary secrets — the ancient rule that could leave you 10 pounds lighter or the food you should be eating to avoid certain death, the fountain of youth that a friend-of-a-friend found in a berry, or the edible flower that could cure cancer. There are a million different scams out there, but what if one of those advertisements proved true? A friend recently told me about a product called Hemp Hearts, which is just a fancy brand name for hemp seeds that haven’t been hulled. However, after reviewing the lofty claims of Hemp Hearts as being the best balanced source of proteins benefitting those with diabetes, chronic constipation, high blood pressure, depression, celiac disease, ADHD and women who are pregnant or lactating, I needed to look into what hemp seeds were really all about.

Hemp seed oil, which is derived from hemp seeds, is considered nutritionally superior to other oils because its essential fatty acid (EFA) profile is closest to the requirements of the human body. Essential fatty acids are those that the body cannot manufacture itself and because of this, one needs to constantly replenish their body with EFAs through their diet. Hemp seeds are the only natural source to have a ratio of 3:1 of omega-6 and omega-3, the ideal ratio for the two most important EFAs. Flaxseed oil is the second most valuable source but is not at the optimal ratio — rather, it has a ratio of 1:3. Quite concerning is that after two years of regular use, flax seed can eventually cause omega-6 deficiency symptoms!

The growth of the hemp industry has been steady in Canada. The most recent data of national hemp growth showed that there were 8,049 acres of licensed hemp fields in Canada in 2008, compared to 3,250 acres in 2001. In Manitoba alone there are 4,875 acres, as of 2009. The government of Manitoba cautions farmers who are jumping on the hemp bandwagon though, indicating that, though the industry is growing, the market is small. Farmers are required to obtain a licence to grow hemp and should be seeking contracts for their crop in order to guarantee prices in the uncertain future of hemp as a desired product in the market.

Although it is difficult for farmers to access the markets right now, the benefit of hemp seeds as a source for protein could make it a foreseeable part of Manitoba’s agricultural landscape. Soy has become staple food for vegetarians and vegans as a source for protein. However, hemp seeds are a great alternative, as they are often said to be better tasting then soybeans and are just as versatile as soybeans. They too can be processed into milk, cheese, ice cream and butter. Further, many proteins are potential allergens, which include soy, dairy or peanut proteins. However, no hemp seed allergies have been reported as of yet.

The shelf life of hemp seeds also make them a great food to have on hand. Like any food product, there are certain storing procedures that can extend the shelf life of hemp foods. Keeping the whole hemp seed (with hull), they can last up to two years from the date of harvest, as long as they are kept dry in a dark, cool place. Once the hull is removed, the seeds are exposed to more light and oxygen and they will quickly go stale if not vacuum sealed and stored properly. Freezing can also further the life of your hemp seed, or hemp seed oil.

Soy is a great comparison for hemp. Soy is a plant-based protein source that many of us are familiar with, but when we compare, hemp appears to reign supreme. Hemp seeds have the most complete edible and usable protein in the vegetable kingdom. Arguably, soybeans contain more protein. However, much of it is unusable by the human body. Proteins are an important part of the diet and many individuals who try to embrace a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle struggle with finding a good balanced source for their protein needs. A pound of hemp seed would provide two weeks worth of protein, essential fatty acids and dietary fiber necessary for human survival. In many parts of the world, hemp seed is used to treat malnourishment for this very reason.
Environmental Nutrition outlined that one tablespoon contains 3.3 grams of protein, a balance of omega-3s and -6s, gammalinolenic acid (GLA), stearidonic acid (SDA) and dietary fibre. Many individuals are stressed out and being told by their doctors that they need to lower their blood pressure and cholesterol, and even the president of the United States has high cholesterol. Omegas and dietary fibre are believed to help with the reduction of cholesterol and hemp seed could benefit not only individuals looking for a balanced meat alternative but also for those looking to reduce their cholesterol.

Although numerous claims are made by Hemp Hearts as to the extent of the benefits that the seeds offer, much of it is still under research. However, with what we do know we can see that Hemp Hearts are a superior meat alternative with no reported allergic reactions and more a balanced protein profile than soy. The potential benefits for those with high cholesterol make this a highly desired commodity for today. Manitoba farmers could see more hemp fields popping up in the near future as more and more research goes into the benefits of these apparent super-seeds.