What Is Hemp?

Nutritional Advantages of Eating Hemp Seeds and Hempseed Oil

Hemp seeds, oil, and protein powder

Verywell / Anastasiia Tretiak​

Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) is grown for use in many different products. Hemp is made into foods, health products, fabric, rope, natural remedies, and much more. Different parts of the hemp plant are used to make different products.

Hemp seeds are edible and highly nutritious. They have a high concentration of fiber. They also contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are nutrients that are important for heart and skin health.

Hemp is sometimes confused with marijuana. Hemp, however, contains only trace amounts of THC, the main chemical in the marijuana plant that makes people get "high." Because hemp contains little THC, it is grown for non-drug use.

This article discusses some of the health benefits of hemp, its uses, and its potential side effects. It also answers some common questions about hemp and how it should be used and stored.

Also Known As

  • Narrow-leaf hemp
  • Bitter root
  • Catchfly
  • Indian hemp
  • Milkweed
  • Wild cotton

Does Hemp Offer Any Benefits?

There are three different plants in the Cannabis genus, also called the Cannabaceae family. These include Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Hemp varieties of Cannabis contain 0.3% or less THC. Marijuana varieties have more than 0.3%. Higher amounts of THC can produce a high.

The seeds are the main edible part of the hemp plant. The leaves can be used to make tea, but most of the nutrients are in the seeds. In fact, hemp seeds are over 30% fat, including essential fatty acids. The potential health benefits of hemp, therefore, come mainly from its seeds. 

Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are, as the name implies, the seeds of the hemp plant. Hemp hearts are seeds that have had the shell removed.

Hemp seeds are high in soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, while insoluble fiber does not. Both types of fiber are important for digestion. Because hemp hearts lack the fibrous shell, they are lower in fiber and other nutrients than whole hemp seeds.

Hemp seeds are also rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid that has been shown to have many health benefits. A 2016 study found that GLA has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Hemp seeds contain a 3-to-1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. This is considered an optimal ratio for heart and brain health. 

This ratio is difficult to get in the Western diet. Western diets tend to be too heavy in omega-6 fatty acids, which can be found in foods like vegetable oil. Many Western diets don't contain enough omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in foods like salmon and other wild-caught, cold-water fish.

Hemp seeds contain many nutrients, including protein, minerals (such as magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc), and vitamins.

Whole hemp seeds contain 20% soluble and 80% insoluble fiber. The fiber in hemp seeds may help digestion. It may also help lower bad cholesterol and improve heart health. The insoluble fiber in hemp seeds has also been linked to a lower risk of diabetes.

Hemp Oil vs. CBD Oil

Hemp oil is also called hempseed oil. It is made by cold-pressing hemp seeds. Hempseed oil is different from CBD oil. CBD oil is extracted from the cannabis plant and then combined with a base oil. Examples of base oils include coconut or olive oil.

Hempseed oil comes from hemp seeds only. It is not derived from the Cannabis plant itself. Hempseed oil does not contain any psychoactive properties. You can not use it to get high. Hemp oil has unique properties and health benefits.

Hemp oil contains healthy nutrients such as:

  • Proteins
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are important for good health
  • Minerals like zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, and more
  • Antioxidants like vitamin E

Hemp oil can be used as a cooking oil. Just like any other type of healthy oil, it can be added to foods such as salads, dips, and spreads.

Animal studies have suggested that hempseed oil may lower blood pressure. It may also reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. This hasn't been proven in human studies, though.

Hemp oil is often used as a hair conditioner or a skin moisturizer. Some studies found that hemp seed oil may improve dry, itchy skin and help symptoms of eczema, a common skin condition. When used for eczema symptoms, it may reduce the need for prescription medication.

Recap

Hemp oil is not the same as CBD oil. Hemp oil comes from the seed of the hemp plant. It can be used for cooking or as a hair conditioner or skin moisturizer.

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is a powder made from the seeds of the hemp plant. Hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Some studies, though, have shown that hemp protein isn't as good a source of one amino acid, lysine, compared to soy protein.

Hemp protein is a good choice for vegetarians or vegans because it contains essential fatty acids. Whole hemp seeds contain about 25% protein. This is higher than flax or chia seeds, which contain only around 20% and 18% protein, respectively.

Other Health Benefits

There is not enough clinical research data to back up claims that hemp is a safe or effective treatment for any condition. People still use it as a remedy for many illnesses, though, including:

  • Asthma
  • Cough
  • Bloating
  • Arthritis
  • Syphilis
  • Pneumonia
  • Heart problems
  • Urinary conditions (increasing urine flow)
  • Warts (when applied to the skin)

How It Works

Hemp contains chemicals that may affect the heart and might help reduce blood pressure. Hemp also contains terpenes. Terpenes are the compounds that give plants their distinctive odors.

Some studies suggest that terpenes may have health benefits. These benefits may include:

  • Neuroprotective or brain-protective benefits
  • Anti-inflammatory benefits
  • Anti-tumor properties

Recap

Hemp contains more protein than seeds like chia and flaxseed. It also contains other substances that may have health effects. Some people claim it can help with certain illnesses, though this has not been proven through clinical research.

Possible Side Effects of Hemp Seed

Taking whole hemp seed by mouth can cause many side effects, including:

  • Throat irritation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bradycardia, or slow heart rate
  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure

There is not enough clinical research data to prove that hemp is safe for use in people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. There is also not enough research to show it is safe to use topically on the skin.

Eating hemp seeds is not considered as unsafe as is eating hemp leaves or other parts of the plant. But because of the high fat content, the seeds can cause mild diarrhea. 

Interaction with Medications

Do not ingest hemp when taking cardiac glycosides or diuretics.

Cardiac Glycosides

Cardiac glycosides, such as Lanoxin (digoxin), help the heart beat strongly and can slow down the heart rate. They are used for treating heart failure (in which the heart can't pump blood well enough to meet the body's needs) and irregular heartbeats.

Hemp is also known to slow the heart rate. Taking hemp with cardiac glycosides could slow the heart rate too much. Ask your doctor before taking hemp with Lanoxin.

Diuretics

Diuretics are drugs that increase the amount of urine. They are used to reduce the amount of fluid in the body and lower blood pressure. Diuretics include:

  • Diuril (chlorothiazide)
  • Thalitone (chlorthalidone)
  • Lasix (furosemide)
  • Microzide (hydrochlorothiazide)
  • Others

An increase in the amount of urine may lead to a loss of potassium. Hemp can also decrease potassium. Taking diuretics and hemp together may result in dangerously low potassium levels. This might cause problems with heart function.

Hemp seeds
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Selection, Preparation, and Storage of Hemp Seed

Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, roasted, or cooked with other foods. In China, hemp seed oil has been used as food or made into medicine for thousands of years.

There are many ways to eat hemp protein, oil, and seeds, including:

  • In a smoothie
  • On oatmeal or cereal
  • Sprinkled over salads
  • As a nut butter
  • As a form of milk called hemp milk
  • On yogurt
  • In meal bars or granola bars
  • In salad dressing
  • On casserole dishes
  • Added to baked goods
  • In recipes
  • As a cooking oil

Storage

Hemp seeds need to be stored properly. The healthy fats in hemp seeds can degrade if they are exposed to air for long periods. Storing hemp seeds at high temperatures can have a similar effect. Hemp seeds stored this way could contain unhealthy trans fats, a type of fat especially linked to heart disease.

Store hemp seeds and hemp oil in an airtight container. Keep these products in a cool, dark place. It is best to refrigerate hemp products after opening.

Many hemp products come in different forms, including:

  • Hemp oil
  • Hemp milk
  • Hemp protein powder

Many of these products can be purchased in health food stores or online.

Cooking hemp seeds or heating the oil to temperatures above 350 degrees F can destroy the healthy fatty acids. Hemp seeds and oil are best eaten raw. If cooking with hemp oil, use low heat.

Dosage

The dosage of any herbal or natural supplement, including hemp, depends on several factors. Age and health condition are two important considerations. Never take more than the recommended dosage on the package insert.

Always ask your doctor before taking hemp or any other herb. The recommended dosage may not be right for you.

If you are going to eat hemp seeds, experts suggest starting slow. This is especially true if you have digestive problems. Start with 1 teaspoon and work up to more as tolerated.

Recap

Ask your doctor before taking hemp. Your safe dosage may be different than what is on the packaging.

Selection

Hemp seeds are grown in many different countries. Some people prefer hemp from Canada for its taste and the strict government restrictions aimed to improve quality. Look for products that have been tested in the lab for purity and potency. Consult the manufacturer if you have questions.

Regulations on hemp grown in U.S., Europe, and Canada are stricter than in other countries, such as China.

Common Questions

Are hemp seed hearts the same as hemp seed?

No. Hemp hearts have had the fibrous shell removed. This makes them lower in fiber and other nutrients than whole hemp seeds. Hemp hearts are not as nutritious as whole hemp seeds. However, hemp hearts are very high in healthy polyunsaturated fats.

Are hemp seeds legal to ingest in the U.S.?

Yes, hemp seeds are legal in the United States. Hemp seeds in the U.S. must contain a minimal amount of THC. THC is the psychoactive part of the cannabis plant. 

According to the FDA, some hemp products are safe for food, including:

  • Hemp seeds
  • Hemp seed protein powder
  • Hempseed oil

Can eating hemp cause a person to fail a drug test?

No. Eating moderate amounts of hempseed oil, protein powder made of hemp, or hemp seeds will not cause you to fail a drug test. Hemp contains only trace amounts of THC. Unless you are using other varieties of the Cannabis plant, such as marijuana, or you are eating large amounts of hemp, you are unlikely to fail a drug test.

Hemp hearts do not contain any THC. The shells of whole hemp seed do have trace amounts below 0.3% THC. If you are recovering from cannabis addiction or just want to avoid exposure to THC in any amount, avoid eating whole hemp seeds.

What does hemp taste like?

Hemp seeds have a mild, nutty flavor. They are similar to unsalted sunflower seeds, but the texture is not as hard.

Summary

Hemp seeds are a good source of protein and fiber. Hemp seeds may also have other health benefits, though there is not enough clinical research to say for sure. Because hemp may interact with some drugs and cause certain side effects, it is a good idea to consult your doctor before adding hemp seeds to your diet.

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