Hemp has a reputation as the boring, sober cousin of the cannabis family. That’s because it contains low levels of THC — less than 0.3 percent — making it virtually impossible to get high from smoking or eating it.
But hemp-based food products — particularly hemp seeds — have been donning their letterman jackets and dating cheerleaders in recent years, with hemp industry sales swiftly growing due, in large part, to hemp-based food products. Hemp seeds are increasingly being sprinkled onto salads, blended into smoothies and squeezed into milk. Similarly, more and more companies are incorporating these seeds into their recipes: One popular brewery even released a hemp-based beer earlier this month.
But really, this is the second (or maybe even third) coming of hemp. “The aristocrats were eating imported food and getting scurvy during the Middle Ages,” says Chris Conrad, author of Hemp: Lifeline to the Future and Hemp for Health. “All the while, peasants were eating hemp seeds and being healthy.”
So what’s the point of hemp-based foods if they don’t get you high?
Well, for one, hemp is a complete plant protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids (which build and repair muscles and tissues). It’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid, which has been shown to decrease inflammation and control blood pressure. Even better, hemp is packed with vitamins and minerals, including fiber, iron and magnesium.
Conrad also emphasizes that hemp boasts gamma-linolenic acid, which is normally found in human breast milk. “Hemp itself provides some of the same nutrients,” he says, referring to those found in breast milk. “It was used for weaning people off of their mother’s milk back in the day.”
Conrad explains that most hemp-based food products — milk, bread, granola — provide all of these benefits, but he specifically favors energy bars. “You might say I’m a chocoholic,” he laughs. “I’m a big fan of energy bars that consist of hemp seeds, chocolate and nuts.”
Sprinkling hemp seeds directly onto your meals is another tried-and-true way to incorporate hemp into your diet. “They have a pleasant nutty flavor,” Conrad says. “They’re a bit bigger than a sesame seed, but they aren’t as hard. When you sprinkle them onto ice cream — or whatever else you want to — they add a nice crunch and flavor.”
All of which is a massive improvement to the gritty whole hemp seeds Conrad would eat before these hemp-based food products hit the shelves. “The only thing we could find in 1988 were hemp seeds for birds,” Conrad says. “It was pretty hard to be a fan — the hulls would get stuck in your teeth.”
“I was convinced that hemp was never going to catch on,” Conrad continues. “The progress that has been made over the past 20 or 30 years is astounding.”
Hemp, it seems, has gone from boring and sober to interesting and… well, still sober.