Within the last two decades, the cultivation of hemp seeds has seen a resurgence in North America. Today, thanks to their impressive health benefits, hemp seeds, and hemp-based products are growing in popularity. (9) Keep reading to learn about the impressive health benefits of hemp seeds and the many uses of the hemp plant.
What is hemp and where do hemp seeds come from?
Hemp, also known as Cannabis sativa L. (C. sativa L.), is a plant belonging to the Cannabaceae family of plants with round, brown-colored fruit known as hemp seeds. (9) Hemp seeds can be consumed as they are (hulled, with a fibrous outer layer), as hemp seed kernels (dehulled, often referred to as hemp hearts), or processed into hemp seed oil, flour, protein powder, and other products. (9)
As a crop, the hemp plant has a low environmental impact and is multipurpose, allowing for different uses depending on the part of the plant being used. C. sativa L. plants that are grown to utilize the seeds and the stem’s fiber are often referred to as industrial hemp or fiber-type hemp. The following graphic outlines different uses for C. sativa L. plant varieties based on plant part.
Did you know? Hemp seeds contain a fibrous outer layer, but their inner kernels are commonly known as hemp hearts.
Does hemp contain CBD or THC?
Cannabis is a genus that encompases different species of plants including C. sativa L. and Cannabis indica. (9) C. sativa L. can be grown for different purposes including industrial, medicinal, and narcotic. (9) C. sativa L. plants contain over 100 secondary metabolites that protect the plant from stress and predators but are not essential for growth. (5) Two of these well-known metabolites, namely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are not present in the seeds or roots of the hemp plant. (9) THC is a psychoactive and toxicant phytochemical, CBD is a non-psychoactive phytochemical, and both are present in the inflorescence, a flowerhead cluster including its stems and stalks, of the female hemp plant and, to a lesser extent, in the stems and leaves. (9) C. sativa L. can be characterized as drug hemp (sometimes referred to as marijuana) or industrial hemp depending on the amount of THC present. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC.
Although hemp seeds naturally do not contain CBD or THC, extremely small amounts of THC (less than 0.2% or 0.3%) may be found in hemp seed products due to human contamination between the flowers and the seeds during cultivation. (9)
Did you know? Traditionally, hemp plants were cultivated as fiber crops to produce ropes and textiles, and the seeds were often used as animal feed. (9)
What makes hemp seeds so healthy?
Hemp seeds and hemp products (e.g., oil, protein powder, etc) are rich in essential fatty acids, amino acids, carbohydrates and fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (9)
Depending on environmental factors such as area of origin, hemp seeds generally contain 25 to 35% fats, 20 to 25% protein, containing all essential amino acids (EAA), and 20 to 30% fiber. Fiber content may vary as less fiber is found in dehulled hemp seeds.
Essential fatty acids
EFAs cannot be synthesized in the body, must be consumed through the diet, and are necessary to health. They help maintain cell membrane structure and support cardiovascular, immune (regulate metabolic and inflammatory processes), neurological, and skin health. (9) The majority of research examining the essential fatty acid (EFA) composition of hemp seeds has been conducted on hemp seed oil, and hemp seed oil benefits are impressive. Hemp seed oil contains a variety of fatty acids; however, it is primarily composed of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) (up to 80%) and low in saturated fatty acids (SFAs). (9)
Did you know? The degree of saturation of a fatty acid refers to the number of hydrogen atoms located on the carbon chain of a fatty acid structure.
Hemp seed oil is also unique because it provides a balanced amount of omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs in a ratio ranging from 3:1 to 5:1, a range that the European Food and Safety Authority deems as ideal for maintaining optimal health. (9) Two essential fatty acids (EFAs), linoleic acid and α-Linolenic acid, are the two most abundant PUFAs found in hemp seed oil, and linoleic acid makes up over half of the total fatty acid content of hemp seed oil. (9) Hemp seed oil also contains oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, and gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 PUFA. These two fatty acids have been shown to support anti-inflammatory processes in the body. (9)
Hemp seeds contain approximately 180 different proteins (13) and all essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed through the diet. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein is involved in producing hormones, supporting neurotransmitter function, and building bone, muscle, and other body tissues. (8)
Glutamic acid and arginine are the most abundant EAAs found in hemp seeds, (9) while lysine is present in small amounts. (13) The majority of the protein content is found in the inner layer of the seed, not the hull. The protein digestibility of hemp seeds increases when they’re processed into products such as hemp hearts, hemp oil, hemp protein powder, or hemp flour. (9)
Did you know? The amino acid profile of hemp seed is similar to an egg. (13)
Carbohydrates and fiber
The majority of carbohydrates found in hemp seeds are located in the outer shell (hull) of the hemp seed, largely made up of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is plant material that is resistant to enzymatic digestion (breakdown during digestion). There are several health benefits of dietary fiber, including reduced blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels as well as decreased risk of developing diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain gastrointestinal conditions such as constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticulitis. (3)
The hemp seed dehulling process may eliminate approximately three fourths of the fiber content of hemp seeds, but it may also provide other health benefits, such as increased protein digestibility. (9)
Hemp seeds also contain compounds with antioxidant properties, such as tocopherols, phytosterols, and polyphenols. (9) Much of the research on the antioxidant content of hemp has been conducted on hemp seed oil, not whole hemp seeds. (9) Fat-soluble tocopherols occur naturally in the hemp plant, and their antioxidant activity helps stabilize and protect hemp seed oil from oxidation (damage). (9) The total tocopherol content in hemp seed oil may be higher than that found in sunflower, amaranth, and sesame oil. (16)
Phytosterols are fat-soluble compounds found in plants that have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol and, as a result, may compete with free cholesterol uptake and reduce cholesterol absorption in the intestines, thereby lowering cholesterol levels in the body. (9) (20)
Lastly, polyphenols are secondary metabolites (produced by plants to defend against predatory species and other stressors). Much like tocopherols, polyphenols are protective to the plant and may benefit human health through their antioxidant activity. Antioxidants counteract free radicals and may lower the risk of conditions associated with oxidative stress, which occurs when there are too many free radicals in the body compared to antioxidants, such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes. (4)(9)
Hemp seeds contain potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and trace amounts of iron, manganese, zinc, and copper. (9) Minerals support the production of enzymes and hormones as well as the health of the nervous system, bones, heart, and muscles. (15) The mineral content of hemp seeds depends on the minerals found in the soil in which they were grown, the use and type of fertilizer applied, and the plant variety. (9)
What are the health benefits of hemp seeds?
Researchers continue to examine the potential benefits of hemp seeds and hemp seed products to cardiovascular, neurological, immune, and skin health. (9)
Considering that hemp seeds contain up to 35% fatty acids, the majority of which are anti-inflammatory EFAs, and a variety of antioxidant compounds, researchers continue to examine whether hemp seeds may have the potential to support cardiovascular health. (9) At this time, further controlled clinical trials are necessary to determine the usefulness of hemp seed products for cardiovascular conditions; however, some human studies have been conducted with conflicting evidence.
One study that examined the blood lipid parameters (e.g., cholesterol plasma levels) of healthy volunteers after taking a hemp seed oil supplement of two capsules per day (1 g per capsule) for 12 weeks determined that there was no significant effect on low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or other markers such as plasma concentration changes in fatty acids (e.g., LA, ALA) found in hemp seed oil. The authors suggested that low gastrointestinal absorption of LA and ALA may have contributed to these results and that a higher dose of hemp seed oil and a longer study period may yield more significant changes in these parameters. (10)
Another study examined the effects of hemp seed oil supplementation on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk in children and adolescents with hyperlipidemia (abnormally high levels of certain lipids found in the blood). (7) Children with this condition have a high risk of developing CVD later in life. (7) The volunteers were split into two groups and half of the volunteers were asked to consume 3 g of hemp seed oil per day for eight weeks. At the end of the study period, results demonstrated that volunteers who consumed the hemp seed oil had altered fatty acid composition in red blood cells, specifically a significant increase in total PUFA composition and a decrease in MUFA and SFAs, as well as an increase in omega-3 fatty acids in the blood. Many studies have explored how PUFA including omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a reduction in CVD. (2) However, no effect to the modulation (regulation) of the blood lipid profile was observed, and (7)(9) more controlled research studies are necessary to better understand how hemp seed oil may affect the modulation of hyperlipidemia and CVD risk in children and other populations. (7)
The rich polyunsaturated fatty acid content of hemp seed products may help support our largest organ, the skin. One study examined the effects of hemp seed oil supplementation on the symptoms of patients with atopic dermatitis (AD), a form of eczema that causes dry skin and itchy inflammatory skin lesions. (6)(11) The results of the 20-week randomized, single-blind, crossover study demonstrated an improvement in skin dryness and itchiness as well as positive changes to their fatty acid plasma profiles, suggesting an association between the PUFA content of hemp seed oil and an improvement in symptoms of AD. (6)
Neurological and immune health
The impressive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity hemp seeds may be beneficial to the nervous system and the immune system. Specifically, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action of compounds coumaroyl aminobutanol glucopyranoside (CLG), grossamide, and cannabisin (14)(21)(22)(23) may positively influence microglia cells, central nervous system immune cells that help regulate the immune responses in the brain. Over-activation of these cells may lead to neurological damage, which is often associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. (9)
Results of a six-month study examined the potential benefits of either hemp seed oil and evening primrose oil (EPO) supplementation alone or in combination with a hot-natured diet that included a wide variety of healthy foods, excluded sugar and refined carbohydrates, and reduced unhealthy fats such as trans and hydrogenated. In both groups, patients with an MS diagnosis showed an improvement in inflammatory markers related to MS and disease severity index scores, such as relapse rate and the expanded disability status scale (EDSS), to different degrees. (9)(18)(19)
How to add hemp seeds to your diet
Consider trying one or more of the following to incorporate hemp seeds and hemp products into your diet.
Hemp seed in everyday recipes
Hemp seeds recipes are easier to make than you might think. Hemp hearts can be used as a topping on yogurt, salads, and smoothies, or utilized as an alternative to nuts in a granola bar or pesto recipe.
Hemp seed butter
Hemp seed butter can be purchased from most health food stores, or you can choose to make your own at home by combining 1 cup of hemp hearts and 2 tbsp of hemp seed oil in a food processor or high-speed blender.
Hemp seed flour
Hemp seed flour is a less common gluten-free flour alternative; however, it may provide added nutritional value to gluten-free bread and baked goods than a more traditional gluten-free flour (e.g., corn-based flours). (9) Whole hemp seed powder may also be beneficial in increasing the fiber content of gluten-free bread. (12)
Hemp seed milk
Hemp seed “milk” is a dairy-free milk alternative beverage that can be purchased from stores, or you can choose to make your own by combining ⅓ cup hemp hearts and 5 cups of water in a high-speed blender. If you’d like, you can filter out any small bits of hemp hearts that remain, but it’s not necessary. To add more flavor, try addinging a pinch of cinnamon or cocoa powder, and a little bit of vanilla extract, honey (or sweetener of choice), and sea salt.
Hemp seed oil
Hemp seed oil can be obtained through different methods including pressing whole hemp seeds through an extractor machine that separates and recovers the oil and seed meal. (1) Hemp seed oil can be purchased at grocery stores or specialty health food stores. You may wish to include hemp seed oil in homemade dressings, dips, and sauces.
Hemp seed protein powder
Hemp seed protein powder is manufactured by extracting oil from hemp seeds, and processing the leftover seed meal into protein powder. Hemp seed protein powder is not pure protein; it also contains approximately 10% fatty acids and a good amount of fiber. Although it contains all essential amino acids, it is not considered a complete protein source due to its low lysine and leucine values. (17) You can add hemp seed protein powder to smoothies, and homemade desserts and granola bars.
Hemp seed supplements
Hemp seed oil can be manufactured into softgel capsule form and taken orally with water. Speak to your healthcare provider before taking hemp seed oil supplements.
The bottom line
The C. sativa L. plant belongs to the Cannabaceae family of plants and its seeds boast an impressive nutritional profile containing fatty acids, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and minerals. Thanks to the high nutritional content of hemp seeds, hemp seed products such as hemp seed oil, may support cardiovascular health, improve outcomes for individuals with skin conditions such as AD, and support the nervous and immune systems. Incorporating hemp seeds into your diet can be achieved easily by consuming hemp seed products such as hemp seed butter and hemp seed protein powder or by simply sprinkling hemp hearts on top of your favorite breakfast cereal.
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