Back to the Ancients for Nutritional Future

November 06, 2007
ancientHemp is making a comeback.  Thanks to recent changes in the recommended daily foods to consume, there has been a lot of interest in whole grains.  This has led to a renewed interest in the group of grains and seeds often referred to as “ancient grains.”  Hemp is one of these ancient grains, and considered by many to be one of the most nutritious foods on earth.

Hemp has been used mostly for its fibre since ancient times.  Everything from rope to sail cloth, building materials and the finest materials can, and has been produced from hemp.  It is said there are some 40,000 uses for hemp.

Hemp seeds are very rich in nutrients, and are actually nuts.  Many cookbooks will refer to hemp nut, and products are often labelled as such.  Although very high in protein, typically from 30 to 33 per cent, hemp nut contains no gluten.  Hemp flour is often of interest in the vegan diet, and to those who take an interest in adding protein to their diet.  Hemp nut is also very rich in fat – over 40 per cent — and the seeds are usually crushed to extract the oil. 

At one time, the oil was often used in the making of soap and cosmetics.  After crushing, the resulting “cake” is what is generally milled to produce hemp flour.  Because of the high fat content, commercially sold hemp seeds are not very shelf stable, and susceptible to rancidity within a few months.  Commercial seeds are steamed at 160 F for five minutes to prevent them from sprouting, and this causes fissures in the shell, allowing exposure to oxygen.  The fat in hemp seeds is one of nature’s little wonders.  It contains what is considered to be the perfect balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids for human consumption.  Omega-3 content can be as high as 1.4 per cent in hemp flour, and saturated content very low at 0.6 per cent or less, and trans near zero at 0.05 per cent or less.  Although hemp flour can contain as much as seven or even eight per cent fat, it is also essentially a trans fat-free ingredient, in terms of health claims.

As the flour contains no gluten, and only around 30 to 40 per cent carbohydrates, it is most commonly used together with wheat flour in baking.  Popular items are flatbreads, cookies, muffins, pancakes, brownies, and dense multigrain breads.  Hemp seed flour adds what is described as “a pleasant nutty flavour” to products.  As the seeds are crushed in their shell, the resulting cake flour also contains a lot of dietary fibre – sometimes more than 18 per cent.  Hemp seeds can be found in a variety of food product formats besides flour:  hulled or whole seeds, toasted or natural, even roasted for brewing hemp coffee.

Cultivated hemp does not contain any of the THC that gives the wild “weed” its illegal status.  So why are we not using more hemp in everything we eat for a healthier diet?  Education is probably the first stumbling block, and then, even with demand, the commercial viability is a challenge.  The hemp plant is dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.  In addition, the seed yield is generally approximately three bushels per acre of plants.  Commercially available hemp flour can cost as much as $10 per kilogram.  One could say good health has its price!

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