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Hemp Seeds Please

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"Most people don't know hemp seeds as a traditional food staple documented in China as far back as 1500 B.

Health food aficionados could not have overlooked the recent grocery shelf appearance of hemp foods: pure hemp oil, salad dressings, nutrition bars, corn chips, nut butter and the basic material, the hulled hemp seeds, or hemp nuts. What's in these foods, and why would we want to eat them?

By definition, hemp foods contain the seeds or oil of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. Familiar to us as birdseed, most people do not know hemp seeds as a traditional major food staple documented in China as far back as 1500 BC. Legal to grow in Canada since 1998 following a 60-year prohibition health-conscious eaters in North America and Europe are now rediscovering that these seeds have what it takes to make healthy and tasty foods.

Like other oil seeds, the meat of hulled hemp seeds consists mainly of fat and protein, with a topping of vitamins, phytosterols, trace minerals, dietary fibre and other carbohydrates. Most oil seeds contain plenty of omega-6 essential fatty acids but little to no omega-3s. Health agencies recommend that we eat EFAs in an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about four to one, whereas western diets typically have ratios of 10 and more. In other words, we're getting way too many omega-6 EFAs.

With their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of only about three, hemp seeds and oil beat the target ratio of four and make up for omega-3 deficiency in the remainder of our fat supply. Hemp oil also provides small amounts of other highly polyunsaturated fatty acids, notably gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which has known therapeutic benefits. Similarly, hemp seed protein contains all essential amino acids in a ratio closer to that of "complete" protein sources (meat, milk, eggs) than for other oil seeds, except soy beans. Hemp seed protein is readily digestible and appears to be free of anti-nutrients that interfere with protein uptake.

The composition of hemp seeds makes them particularly valuable in athletic nutrition. More than 20 per cent of their fatty acids are triple-unsaturated and readily available for energy production. The excellent omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and plentiful vitamin E content promote healing of inflammatory injuries and bruises, while the digestibility of hemp protein supports muscle buildup.

It is this beneficial balance of basic nutrients and the fact that they are "offered in taste" that make hemp seeds and oil such attractive, modern food sources. They add a nutty element to salads, soups, sauces, dips and pastry. My favourite quick snack is toasted hemp nuts with a bit of soy sauce. Those with a sweet tooth will find that they enrich puddings, jams and other sweet spreads.

In the United States, the revival of hemp foods has met with objections by federal drug control authorities. Botanically closely related to marijuana, hemp seed hulls contain small residues of THC, marijuana's major psychoactive component. Farming of low-THC varieties and thorough seed cleaning has allowed Canadian farmers to reduce THC in oil and nuts to low parts per million levels. Several studies have shown that these levels are far too low to cause a high, undesirable health effects or positive drug tests, even when someone eats large amounts of hemp foods daily. Fortunately, joint media pressure and court action by Canadian and US industry members appear effective in removing irrational hurdles to the revival of a traditional, complete and tasty food source grown in Canada.

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