Although hemp and marijuana are closely related, the hemp plant (botanical name Cannabis Sativa L.), is just one variety of many Cannabis strains (1).
THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the active substance in pot that gets people high. Hemp crops used today for food and fabric don’t have much of this psychoactive component compared to their party time cousins.
In Canada and the European Union, only varieties containing less than 0.3% THC in their flowers can legally be farmed, while marijuana flowers typically contain 3 to 20%.
In the U.S., debate over the threat of hemp farming to health and safety keeps the crops pretty much illegal. A license to grow crops can be obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration, but it’s usually refused. (Ironically, the first U.S. flags were supposedly made from hemp fabric.)
Hemp products you find on the shelves today in the U.S. and Canada come from plants grown mostly in Canada, where farmers have been allowed to grow them since 1998 under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Hemp is a versatile plant.
Its fibers, core, seeds and flowers can be used as raw materials to form products ranging from food to paper, and clothing to carpeting.
Hemp is an eco-friendly crop that rarely needs pesticide treatments for bugs or herbicides for weeds
(1). Thus, consumers can be assured that hemp foods are low in chemical residues.
Also, many hemp companies certify that their plants contain no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and/or are grown organically.
Why is hemp so important?
Content of Main Fatty Acids
Content of main fatty acids in hempseed oil, based on means of 62 varieties grown in southern Ontario (reported in Small and Marcus 2000)
The unique ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ensures that you can consume hemp without needing to balance it with any other food rich in fat.
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of hemp oil is 3:1. This is a good ratio.
Most modern diets are an alarming 10:1, or more. High dietary omega-6s relative to omega-3s is associated with numerous health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Hemp alone offers benefits that few other foods provide.
Fatty Acid Profile
Hemp’s nutritional benefits derive largely from its fatty acid composition.
The oil, which makes up half of the weight of the seeds, contains 75% essential fatty acids, of which :
- About 20% are the omega-3, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
- About 3% is gamma-linoleic acid (GLA)
- About 1% of the rising omega-3 fatty acid star, stearidonic acid (SDA)
New Ways to Bump
We usually focus on EPA and DHA fatty acids, found abundantly in cold-water fatty fish and seafood. These fats have numerous cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.
The other omega-3s, such as ALA, are often down-played because they don’t appear to have the same physiological properties as EPA and DHA.
Thus, fish oil is an increasingly popular supplement that people consider a staple of their health regimen. But as fish sources are becoming depleted.
The omega-3 fatty acid SDA is now being recognized as another beneficial fat, and is considered a “pro-EPA” fat.
In other words, it converts to EPA. Indeed, when humans consume SDA, blood content of EPA in phospholipids can double.
SDA is an intermediate in the omega-3 pathway from ALA to EPA (see below), but does not accumulate in blood lipids like ALA. So, this special omega-3 fat is converted completely to its downstream products, most importantly EPA.
SDA can increase the overall blood omega-3 index, considered to be an important factor for cardiovascular disease.
Oils rich in SDA, such as hemp, provide a plant source of SDA.