Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
What Are the Benefits of Hemp Seeds?
Hemp seeds are a very healthy, nutritious, and versatile food. They are rich in protein and contain important omega-3 fatty acids. They are also loaded with minerals and vitamins. The seeds are a great food for vegans because they can replace dairy in the diet. They can be ground to make butter, blended with water to make milk or cream, pressed to make an oil, or used to make a protein powder or gluten-free flour.
I like to sprinkle hemp seeds over fruit and cereal. They work well in yogurt and on salads. They are also a useful ingredient in many recipes. The shelled seeds are available in my local supermarket as well as in specialty stores. They're sometimes known as hemp hearts.
Hemp seeds sold for food come from a special cultivar of the hemp plant. Some varieties of hemp contain significant quantities of a psychoactive chemical known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Hemp plants cultivated for food contain negligible amounts of THC, however.
Types of Hemp Seed Products
Hemp seeds are widely available where I live. Products made from the seeds are also available, although I have to travel further to find them. Hemp seed milk and butter can be made at home or bought in a store.
Hemp milk in stores comes in plain or flavoured versions, just like dairy milk, and usually contains added vitamin B12. Plants don't contain this important nutrient. There have been claims that the vitamin has been found in certain seaweeds and mushrooms. The claims are somewhat controversial, however. It's unclear whether the chemical from these sources that seems to be vitamin B12 is usable by our bodies. Hemp milk is generally sold in a Tetra Pak carton and must be refrigerated after the carton is opened.
Butter and Oil
Hemp seed butter and oil must be refrigerated in the store and at home. They should be sold and stored in dark, opaque containers that are tightly closed. Heat, light, and oxygen will damage the oil. The butter has a rich taste and is a great spread. The oil can be used in smoothies and in salad dressings.
Protein Powder and Flour
Hemp protein powder is sold in health food stores and can be added to foods and to drinks such as smoothies to increase their protein content. Hemp flour is also available and can provide a protein boost to baked goods.
It isn't quite so essential to refrigerate the seeds, protein powder, or flour as it is for the milk, butter, and oil. It's advisable to do so, however, because they'll stay fresh for longer if they're kept cool. The storage recommendations and the expiry date should be checked when a hemp seed product is purchased.
Commercial hemp milk is white in colour, like dairy milk. I've only tried one brand of hemp seed butter. It has a rich green colour. Hemp protein powder is also green.
Healthy Fatty Acid Content
When referring to the diet, the word "fat" conjures up a bad image in some people's minds. Fat is actually an essential nutrient. It's important that we choose a healthy version to eat, however, and that we eat it in moderation. Hemp seeds are a great source of healthy fat.
A two tablespoon serving of hemp seeds contains about 9 grams of fat. This consists mainly of polyunsaturated fatty acids plus a small amount of monounsaturated and saturated ones. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids are considered to be healthy substances when eaten in a reasonable quantity. Saturated ones don’t have such a good reputation, though their effects are still being studied.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated and are present in a little over a 3:1 ratio in hemp seeds. Some nutritionists say that many of us are eating far too many omega-6 fatty acids in proportion to the omega-3 ones. Hemp seeds contain a good omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
Two essential fatty acids (EFAs) are needed by humans. These are ones that scientists say we need but that we cannot make in our bodies. Linoleic acid, an omega-6 substance, is one EFA. The other one is alpha-linolenic acid, which is an omega-3 substance. Both EFAs are present in hemp seeds. They are sometimes known as "parent" fatty acids, since the body can make other important fatty acids from them.
Hemp seeds are versatile and are a great addition to sweet or savory recipes. The videos in this article give some recipe ideas.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Researchers are discovering that omega-3 fatty acids have many very important health benefits. They are necessary for proper brain function and also reduce inflammation, decrease the risk of heart disease, and improve the blood triglyceride and cholesterol profile. These benefits have been discovered for the animal forms of omega-3 fatty acid—EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) —which are found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and halibut. Plants contain a different omega-3 fatty acid—ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Our bodies convert ALA into EPA and DHA, although in limited amounts. Hemp seeds have an advantage in this respect compared to many plants, as described below.
Hemp oil is added to skin creams. I have never used a cream containing the oil, but some people report that it's a very effective moisturizer.
Two Additional Fatty Acids in Hemp Oil
Hemp seed oil (or hemp oil) also contains small quantities of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SDA). Gamma-linolenic acid is an omega-6 substance made from linoleic acid and may be anti-inflammatory. Stearidonic acid is an omega-3 substance made from alpha-linolenic acid and increases the amount of eicosapentaenoic acid—one of the fish oil omega-3 fatty acids—in the body.
Since GLA and SDA are both made in our bodies, people might wonder why their presence in hemp seeds is significant. The reason is that the chemical reactions that make these fatty acids are sometimes hindered by other substances in the body. It's beneficial to eat preformed GLA and SDA instead of relying entirely on our body's production of these chemicals.
The benefits of hemp seed oil can be obtained by eating hemp seeds or the extracted oil. Unrefined, cold pressed hemp oil is green in color due its chlorophyll content and has a pleasant, slightly nutty taste. The oil shouldn't be heated, since high temperatures may damage its fatty acids.
Hemp seeds are a good source of protein. The seeds that I buy contain about 7 grams of protein in two tablespoons of seeds. This protein is useful for everyone, but especially for vegans, who eat no food that comes from animals. Foods from animal sources—especially meats and fish—contain much higher protein levels than foods from plant sources.
Protein has many vital functions in the body, including making up our muscles, fighting infections as antibodies, becoming blood-clotting proteins to prevent blood loss when we're wounded, forming enzymes to control chemical reactions, becoming hormones such as insulin, and transporting oxygen in the blood in the form of hemoglobin.
Hemp seeds contain a good quality protein which contains all the essential amino acids (ones that our bodies cannot make), although one of them (lysine) is present in a low quantity. Amino acids are joined together in our bodies to make the specific proteins that we need.
A large amount of the protein in hemp seeds exists in the form of edestin. This is a type of protein known as a globulin. Globulins also occur in our blood. Scientists haven't yet discovered whether edestin has any special benefit for us, apart from being a protein.
Other Nutrients in Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds are an excellent source of manganese and magnesium and a good source of zinc, iron, thiamine, folate, and vitamin B6. They also contain fibre. The seeds are low in sodium and salt.
Like all foods from plants, hemp seeds contain no cholesterol. They contain phytosterols instead, which resemble cholesterol in structure and function. Some types of phytosterols have been found to lower the level of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) in our blood. Despite its nickname, LDL cholesterol is a normal part of our body. It’s good to keep its level reasonably low, though. When its level is high, it contributes to the buildup of fatty deposits on the lining of our arteries. The deposits are known as plaque, and the condition resulting from its presence is known as atherosclerosis.
Unlike tree nuts and sesame seeds, hemp seeds don't appear to be allergenic. Due to the genetic and physiological variability of humans, though, it's possible that some people are allergic or intolerant to the seeds and/or the products made from them.
What Is Industrial Hemp?
Marijuana and hemp seeds are obtained from the same plant species: Cannabis sativa. Hemp seeds and hemp fibres for textile use are obtained from cultivars that are bred to be high in fibre and very low in THC, however. In Canada, where I live, hemp grown for seeds and containing a very low level of THC (0.3% or less) is referred to as industrial hemp. The seeds and their products are widely available in stores. The rules governing the crops that produce them are strict, however.
People sometimes want to know whether eating hemp seeds sold in grocery stores would cause them to fail a routine test for the presence of THC in their body. This is highly unlikely. Depending on the brand of the seeds, the probability may not be zero, however. If a person ate an extremely large quantity of the seeds, they might experience a problem in the test.
It should be noted that due to individual variation in our bodies, the quantity of hemp seeds in the diet required to produce a positive test for THC may not be the same in everyone. Anyone concerned about the topic should investigate the brand of hemp seeds or other hemp products that they choose to eat and contact the manufacturer and independent reviewers if necessary.
Using Hemp Seeds in a Healthy Diet
Hemp seeds are a great addition to the diet and offer a range of very useful health benefits. I make sure that I eat them often, either on their own, as part of a recipe, or as milk or oil. If someone decides to add the seeds to their diet, choosing a product of good quality is important, though budget plays a role in the choice as well.
Hemp seeds and their products are relatively new foods in the marketplace. Sometimes wonderful claims are made for their nutritional benefits that haven't yet been confirmed by scientists. Even without these extra benefits, though, hemp seeds and the products made from them are very healthy foods.
- Nutrition in hemp seeds (plus information about THC) from WebMD
- Nutrient content of hemp seeds from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Facts about dietary fats from the Mayo Clinic
- Omega-3 fatty acid information from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
- Steridonic acid abstracts from Science Direct
- Information about gamma-linolenic acid from Science Direct
- Cholesterol information from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2012 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 30, 2019:
Thank you, Ishaq. I appreciate your comment.
Ishaq on January 29, 2019:
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 23, 2014:
Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, MsDora! I appreciate your visit.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 23, 2014:
Voted Up and Useful! Thank you for this valuable information on the nutrition in Hemp seeds. Have not read or heard this much about it anywhere. The recipes are also helpful.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 14, 2012:
Hi, drbj. That's an interesting question! In Canada, where quite a lot of hemp seeds are produced for food, by federal law industrial hemp plants must contain no more than an extremely low level of THC (no more than 0.3% of the weight of leaves and flowering parts). Some hemp seed sellers claim that it's impossible to fail a urinalysis test after eating hemp seeds. I have no concerns about the safety of eating hemp seed products for food, but if my athletic career was on the line - or any other career that involved a urine test - I wouldn't take any chances. The hemp seeds would probably cause no problem, but probably isn't good enough for some purposes! Thanks for the comment.
drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 14, 2012:
Hi, Alicia. Thanks for this fascinating hemp hub. People who need to take drug tests are advised not to eat any food with poppy seeds beforehand, as it might show traces of opium. Wonder if the same holds true for hemp seeds ... showing traces of cannabis? Just wonderin'.