The history and health perks of a Canadian-grown grain
If you're not familiar with hemp, get to know this excellent source of plant protein. It's ideal for vegans, vegetarians, athletes, and everyone else.
Hemp has a 400-year history of farming in Canada. For many decades, this tasty crop was shrouded in controversy. What isn’t controversial are the big health benefits of this tiny seed.
North America’s first hemp crop was planted in Nova Scotia in the 1600s. A couple of centuries later, the lieutenant governor of what was then known as the province of Upper Canada—today, we refer to it as southern Ontario—wanted to promote the growth of hemp and began to give away hempseeds to any Canadian farmer who wished to grow it.
The enthusiasm for hemp ground to a halt in 1938 when Canada banned hemp production under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. Hemp looks just like marijuana—yes, the mind-altering herb—because they’re both varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant. Confusion between the two led to bans across Canada and the US, even though hemp doesn’t have enough of the psychoactive compounds found in marijuana to get you high.
In 1998, the government allowed licensed farmers to begin growing hemp again. Fast forward to today. Canadian hemp crops, many of them organic and all of them GMO free, are now a multimillion dollar industry, with Manitoba leading the way. Canadian hemp farmers are considered to be at the forefront of formulating hemp-based foods, and more and more Canadians are learning about the nutritional benefits of hemp products.
While the hemp plant itself is useful for making rope, clothing, and textiles, it’s the plant’s seeds that carry a nutritional punch. How we process and use these seeds makes all the difference. When browsing the aisles of a health food store, it’s easy to get confused by all the forms of hemp we may encounter.
“Hemp hearts and hempseeds are the way to go,” says naturopathic doctor Matthew Brennecke. Hempseeds are the whole grain, while hemp hearts are shelled seeds, he explains. Although hempseeds contain more fibre due to their crunchy shells, hemp hearts are easier on the teeth. Brennecke points out that both hemp hearts and hempseeds are rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron and the antioxidant vitamin E.
Hempseeds and hemp hearts are also rich in protein, containing all 20 essential and nonessential amino acids; this makes hemp a complete protein. In fact, a 2010 study found that hemp’s protein digestibility score was equal to or better than most plant-based protein sources, such as grains and nuts.
Studies link adequate protein intake with enhanced cardiovascular health, improved strength, increased lean body mass, better joint health, and more. Focusing specifically on hemp, an animal study found that hemp protein may have antifatigue benefits and boost immune strength.
Hemp hearts do beat whole hempseeds when it comes to protein. The removal of the shell makes it easier for our bodies to digest the protein. A 100 g serving of whole hempseeds nets us 33 g of protein, while the same serving size of shelled hempseeds yields 37 g of protein.
“Hemp, whether seed or heart, is an excellent addition to anyone’s diet and should be utilized much more than it currently is,” summarizes Brennecke.
“One of my favourite forms of hempseed is the oil,” says registered dietitian May Tom. The oil comes from crushing and pressing the hempseeds. “Hempseed oil is a great source of vitamin E, an important antioxidant that helps in keeping the immune system healthy.”
Approximately 30 percent of hempseed oil is essential fatty acids (EFAs), and hemp is one of just two plants that provide both EFAs and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). The Government of Canada reports that hempseed oil’s EFAs may help with arthritis, cancer, diabetes, lupus, and hypertension. Meanwhile, a third of Canadians don’t have an important enzyme required for the body to properly metabolize its own GLA—an important fatty acid that may help with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, depression, and more—making hempseed oil a helpful dietary supplement.
Hempseeds, hemp hearts, and hempseed oil are common staples, but people have found other creative ways to use hemp. Hempseed butter, made by grinding the oil-rich seeds into a thick paste, can be enjoyed like other nut butters. Hemp flour, which does not rise and is typically too dense to be used on its own, can be mixed with other flours to make a wide range of baked goods. There’s also nondairy hemp cheese and milk, “coffee” made from toasted hemp, and other packaged foods incorporating this Canadian-grown grain.
Unlike many other grains and seeds, hemp has special storage requirements, as its high oil content makes it more likely to go bad due to oxidation. Store hempseed oil in the back of the refrigerator away from air, heat, and light. Keep hempseeds and hemp hearts in a sealed container in your freezer to extend their freshness.
With the proper storage, hemp can be enjoyed in its many forms, however you see fit. “Adding hemp to the diet is easy,” says Tom. “I’d recommend trying all three forms—hearts, seeds, and oil—and seeing which one is easiest to incorporate in everyday life.”
Options for using hemp hearts in everyday meals are limited solely by your creativity.
Tom suggests using hempseed oil in salad dressings. Or drizzle it onto steamed vegetables, rice, and other side dishes. It’s also perfect for low-heat cooking, which doesn’t damage hempseed oil’s health benefits the way cooking does to some other oils, such as flaxseed oil. Finally, because it doesn’t have a very strong flavour, hempseed oil can be added to smoothies and shakes.