Hemp Seeds, Oil and Milk - Great Nutrition and Health Benefits
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. Hemp seeds are a great food for vegans because the seeds can replace dairy in the diet. They can be ground to make a butter, blended with water to make a milk or cream or pressed to make an oil, a protein powder or a gluten-free flour.
I like to sprinkle hemp seeds over fruit and cereal. They work well in yogurt and on salads, too. The shelled seeds are available in my local supermarket as well as in specialty stores. They're sometimes known as hemp hearts. Hemp seed butter and milk can be made at home or bought in a store. The milk comes in plain or flavored versions, just like dairy milk, and usually contains added vitamin B12. Plants don't contain this important nutrient. 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. Hemp seed oil can be used in smoothies and in cold foods like salads.
Hemp seeds sold for food come from a special variety of the hemp plant. They are not only safe to eat but are also a very beneficial addition to our diet. Some varieties of the hemp plant contain significant quantities of a psychoactive chemical known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). However, hemp plants cultivated for food contain negligible amounts of THC.
Healthy Fatty Acids in Hemp Seeds
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 healthy fat 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 fat consists mainly of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, with a small amount of monounsaturated (very healthy) and saturated (less healthy) fatty acids as well. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (both polyunsaturated) are present in a little over a 3:1 ratio. 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.
There are two essential fatty acids (EFAs) 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 fatty acids from them.
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.
Two Additional Fatty Acids in Hemp Oil
Hemp seed 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 isolated hemp 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. It should also be refrigerated and stored in a dark bottle to prevent damage from heat, light or oxygen. Hemp oil is added to skin creams. Some people report that it's a very effective moisturizer.
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Other Nutrients in Hemp Seeds
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.
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 hemp seed protein is in the form of edestin, a type of protein known as a globulin. Globulins also occur in our blood, but scientists haven't yet discovered whether edestin has any special benefit for us, apart from being a protein.
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 fiber. The seeds are low in sodium and salt, and like all plant foods they 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.
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Hemp Seeds and 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 a milk or oil.
Hemp seeds and their products are relatively new foods in the marketplace, and sometimes wonderful claims are made for their nutritional benefits which haven't yet been confirmed by scientists. Even without these extra benefits, though, hemp seeds and hemp seed products are very healthy foods!
© 2012 Linda Crampton