The Highs and Lows of Hemp as a Food Ingredient

Q. I?ve been seeing hemp as an ingredient in food products. Is it safe to eat?

A. Hemp is no longer a blast from the past; it’s becoming more widely recognized as a low-input, sustainable industrial crop with a potential for making everything from textiles and paper to biofuel. It’s also become a popular functional food ingredient. Agricultural hemp has a rich, centuries-old history of use as traditional medicine by many cultures across the world.

U.S. hemp cultivation ban. Although hemp is grown in Canada and Europe, it has not been allowed to be grown in the U.S. since 1958. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 put a stop to its cultivation. Industrial hemp is often confused with marijuana, but it is a different breed of cannabis sativa and possesses very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the chief intoxicant in marijuana. While the U.S. currently prevents cultivation of hemp, they permit trade in nonviable hemp seed, oil and fiber.

Green hemp. Hemp is a cost-effective, eco-friendly agricultural crop compared with other popular fiber crops. According to a 2008 Reason Foundation study, hemp requires less energy to manufacture, and is less toxic to process, easier to recycle and more biodegradable than most competing crops.

Hemp in the kitchen. Shelled hemp seeds (“hemp nuts”) and cold-pressed hemp oil are used in many foods like salad dressings, nutrition bars, breads, cookies, granola, meatless burgers, chips and beverages. With its soft, sesame-seed like appearance and nutty flavor, you can sprinkle hemp seeds into cereals, salads, breads, casseroles and desserts. Hemp seeds are rich in high-quality protein, vitamins, phytosterols and trace minerals. But the healthy fat profile of hemp gets the most attention?hemp is rich in omega-3s, as well as the more rare polyunsaturated fatty acids, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SDA), which have shown health benefits in recent research.

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