I first got into hemp when I was pregnant and looking to add more, and more varied, sources of protein to my diet. I was skeptical at first (I mean I’m crunchy, but c’mon!), but I had to admit that the nutrient profile of this little plant was impressive. So with caution and curiosity I waded into the world of hemp . . . and found that the more I tasted, the more I wanted! And the more I learned, the more I loved! Until very soon I was a convert into the cult of Cannabis. Now I’m an evangelical hemp hound.
I don’t want to reinforce a protein myth, but it’s important to note that hemp foods are considered a ‘complete’ protein. Less common in plants than in animal products, ‘complete’ protein sources are those that include all 8 essential amino acids. Amino acids are, of course, the building blocks of proteins, and our body can make all but 8 of them. These 8 must be secured dietarily.
So hemp is a complete protein which makes things easy, especially when you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or an athlete. But hemp is also a source of essential fatty acids, particularly the elusive omega-3s. Also rare in the herbivorous world, these important fats must be sourced externally. My article on EFAs provides a much more thorough discussion, but suffice it to say that EFAs are key components of healthy eating, and hemp’s got ‘em!
In addition to these fundamental-yet-hard-to-find macronutrients, hemp also boasts a beautiful spread of major micronutrients. Whole hemp seeds provide many minerals, such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganeses, phosphorous, and zinc. They also include vitamins B1, B2, and E, and the tocopheral suite of antioxidants. And bonus: hemp is naturally gluten-free!
But hemp isn’t just healthy – it’s also a bit of a wondercrop. It grows in a wide range of soils and climates. It thrives in close quarters, which maximizes spacial efficiency. This also means that herbicides are rarely used (no room for weeds to take root), and pesticides are uncommon because of the plant’s natural defenses. Acre for acre, hemp can yield up to four times the usable fibers of a forest. Hemp can also effectively replace cotton, a crop which accounts for up to 50% of the pesticide use worlwide. And the fiber structure makes processing a lot less energy and chemical intensive. Basically, it’s an environmentalist’s dream.
So now that I’ve extolled the virtues of hemp, I bet you’re wondering how the heck you eat it! Luckily, you have a lot of options. First there’s plain ol’ hemp hearts, which is a fancy way of saying hulled hemp seeds. These are the ‘whole food’, comprised of 35% protein, 47% healthy fats, and only 12% carbohydrates. Hemp hearts are soft and a bit chewy, with an almost sweet, almost nutty flavor. Personally I put them in just about everything: served over salads, dropped into dips, sprinkled on soups, blended into smoothies, stirred into nut butters or thrown into nut butter & jelly sammiches – and on and on. These are very versatile items, though to be truthful, I’ve been known to snack on them by the straight spoonful!
Hemp can be found in a number of other incarnations as well. From the raw, minimally processed protein powder that I often enjoy in my smoothies (shown above), to cold-pressed omega-rich oils used in dressings, dips, and marinades, to thickly blended hemp butter and delicious creamy hemp milk, to novelty products like hemp ice cream (it’s so silky!)
Hemp butter by Wilderness Poets. They’re awesome, you should check them out!
Lately I’ve been moving from using hemp as a garnish or add-in, to featuring it front and center. And let me tell you, for a foodie geek like me, a new ingredient to fawn over can be pretty damn exciting. I’ve been revisiting all the classics, incorporating this new virtuoso. Here’s one of my favorite incarnations:
Limey Hemp Hummus
2 cups chickpeas, canned or home cooked, drained and rinsed
2 tall tablespoons hemp butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
the juice from one lime
water to thin, as needed
s+p, to taste