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Everything You Need to Know About How to Eat Hemp Seeds

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Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods

As far as the nut and seed world goes, hemp seeds are like the straight-A student who’s also captain of the football team. A couple of spoonfuls of hemp seeds packs a serious amount of essential nutrients, they’re easy to eat and cook with, and they have a pleasantly nutty taste, like a cross between a sunflower seed and a pine nut. And no, they won’t get you remotely high. Here’s everything you need to know about how to buy and eat these little seeds.

Although hemp and marijuana are members of the same species, Cannabis sativa, they’re in effect completely different plants. There are about a dozen varieties of hemp plants that are grown for food, and all of them contain about 0.001 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. This means you can eat as much hemp as you want and you’ll never have to worry about getting high or failing a drug test. Although certain states have begun to legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp in the last couple of years, the hemp seeds you can find at your grocery or health food store were likely grown in Canada or China.

Hemp plants grow brown popcorn kernel-sized hard seeds. Inside these hard seeds lie soft, white or light green inner kernels that are packed with essential amino acids, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. You can’t really derive a lot of nutritional value from the unhulled seeds, so when you see a bag at the store labeled “hemp seeds,” what you’re actually buying is those soft inner kernels, also known as hemp hearts. Hemp hearts can be pressed to make hemp seed oil, leaving behind a byproduct that can be turned into hemp protein powder. You can find all of these hemp products at health food stores, or a well-stocked grocery store like Whole Foods.

Eating shelled hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, is as simple as sprinkling a spoonful or two into smoothies or on top of cereal, salads, or yogurt, says Kelly Saunderson of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, the world’s largest hemp foods manufacturer. People with gluten sensitivity can use hemp seeds as a substitute for breadcrumbs to coat chicken or fish. Just like you can blend almonds and water to make almond milk, you can do the same with hemp seeds for hemp seed milk, which you can use as an alternative to dairy milk in drinks and recipes. And because of its nutty flavor, hemp seeds make a great substitute for people with nut allergies—you can dry-toast them over low heat to bring out even more of that nuttiness.

Hemp seed oil should be used as a finishing oil, rather than a cooking or frying oil, since the delicate omega fatty acids will break down during the cooking process, stripping the oil of its nutritional benefits. Instead, use it to make salad dressings, or drizzle over pasta, grilled veggies, or popcorn.

Hemp seeds are considered one of the most valuable plant-based proteins out there. Here's what you need to know about how to eat them.

Hemp Hearts Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

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Hemp hearts, annotated

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Hemp hearts are the soft inner part of hemp seeds after the outer shell has been removed. The tiny cream and green-colored seeds are sometimes referred to as shelled or hulled hemp seeds.

Hemp hearts come from the from Cannabis sativa L. plant. But unlike some other species of the cannabis plant, hemp hearts have nonmedicinal levels (less than 0.3%) of the psychoactive compound THC.

The plant originates from Central Asia and the hemp fibers and seeds have been used and enjoyed by humans for thousands of years. Today, hemp hearts can be found worldwide. They’re loved for their versatility, nutty flavor, and nutritious benefits.

Hemp Heart Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for 3 tablespoons (30g) of hulled, hemp seed.  

  • Calories: 166
  • Fat: 14.6g
  • Sodium: 1.5mg
  • Carbohydrates: 2.6g
  • Fiber: 1.2g
  • Sugars: 0.5g
  • Protein: 9.5g

Carbs

A single serving of hemp hearts is relatively high in calories but low in carbohydrates. A serving of hemp heart (3 tablespoons) has 166 calories but just 2.6 grams of carbohydrates. Nearly half of the carbs (about 1.2 grams) come from fiber. Only a half gram of carbs come from sugar and the rest comes from starch.  

Hemp hearts are a low glycemic food with the glycemic load of a single 3-tablespoon serving estimated to be 0.

Hemp hearts are filled with healthy fats. A serving of 3 tablespoons has almost 15 grams of fat, of which 1.4 grams are saturated, 1.6 grams are monounsaturated, and 11.4 grams are polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids). That’s more of the good fats than you’ll find in a similar serving of chia or flax seeds. Since hemp hearts are plant-based, they are also cholesterol-free.

Protein

These little seeds pack a huge plant-based protein punch. A serving of 3 tablespoons has nearly 10 grams of protein, about double what you’ll find in a similar serving of flax seeds or chia seeds (about 5 grams each).

Hemp seeds also contain all nine essential amino acids,   and they are well digested, especially for a plant-based protein.

In general, animal sources such as eggs, milk, and whey have a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAA) of 1.00, which means they’re well digested. Plant protein sources typically fall below this. Soy leads the plant category with a score close to 1.00, followed by beans, pulses, and legumes (score of 0.6 to 0.7), and grains and nuts (0.4 to 0.5). Hemp hearts have a PDCAA score of 0.63 to 0.66.  

Vitamins and Minerals

Not only are hemp hearts loaded with healthy fats and proteins, but they’re also packed with nutrients.

Hemp is an excellent source of magnesium, providing about 210mg or about 50% of your daily needs. A serving of seeds also has 13% of the daily iron requirements for adults (2.4mg). Hemp hearts are also a good source of zinc, providing about 3mg per serving or about 20% of your daily needs.  

Health Benefits

By including hemp seeds in your diet, you may take advantage of certain health benefits. Many research studies investigating hemp benefits have been performed on animals. More research in humans is needed.

Improved Heart Health

Like other seeds (and nuts), hemp seeds are heart-healthy. Studies have shown that they are high in both omega-3 fatty and omega-6 fatty acids.   A healthy omega-3 to omega-6 intake is crucial for the prevention or reduction of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease.

Authors of one research review concluded that there is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that hemp seeds have the potential to beneficially influence heart disease, but they added that more research is needed.  

Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

You’ll get a healthy dose of magnesium when consuming hemp seeds. Magnesium is needed by the body for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. According to the National Institutes of Health, magnesium helps the body break down sugars and might help reduce the risk of insulin resistance—a condition that can lead to diabetes.  

Stronger Bones

Magnesium also helps your body to build stronger bones. The NIH reports that people with higher intakes of magnesium have a higher bone mineral density, which is important in reducing the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis.   And studies have shown that a proper level of magnesium in the body is important for maintaining healthy bones.  

Constipation Relief

Hemp seeds may provide some relief to those with constipation due to the fiber they provide. Researchers have found that increasing your fiber intake helps to increase stool frequency in patients with constipation.  

Preliminary research has also found that hemp seeds may help with constipation. One animal study found that consuming hemp seed soft capsules helped relieve constipation compared to the control group.   However, more research needs to be conducted to understand the full benefit in humans.

Improved Cognitive Function

Another recent, preliminary animal study was conducted on the potential benefit hemp seeds might have on issues with memory and neuroinflammation. Researchers found that the hemp seed extract prevented the learning and spatial memory damage from inflammation and improved damage from the induced inflammation in the hippocampus.  

More studies need to be conducted to see if this benefit extends to humans.

Allergies

Allergic reactions to Cannabis sativa have been reported, although many studies investigate the part of the plant used for marijuana use (not hemp seeds). There have been reports of sore throat, nasal congestion, rhinitis, pharyngitis, wheezing, and other problems including anaphylactic responses. There have also been reports of hemp workers involved in processing hemp fibers at a textile mill showing a significantly higher prevalence of chronic respiratory symptoms.  

Recent reports of allergy to hemp seed are lacking. But at least one older study was published indicating that the condition is possible.  

Adverse Effects

When consumed as a food, hemp seed is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Many people wonder if they will get high from consuming hemp seeds. But that is not likely to happen. While marijuana and hemp seeds are related (they come from the same cannabis plant family), they are very different.

Hemp seeds don’t naturally contain significant levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component. In fact, food-grade strains of hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC by weight. But studies have noted that they may not be free of this compound entirely.

A study conducted in Canada found variations in THC levels in hemp seed products, with some evaluated brands containing higher amounts than the legal threshold. Researchers suggested that the higher levels may be due to contamination during processing.  

If you are taking certain medications, including estrogen, ACE inhibitors, or antihypertensive drugs, speak to your healthcare providers before consuming hemp seeds.

Hemp seeds are naturally gluten-free but can be subject to cross-contamination if they are processed in a facility that also processes gluten-containing grains. So if you adhere to a gluten-free diet, look for brands that are certified gluten free.

Varieties

The common varieties of hemp hearts are organic and non-organic, but you’ll often find other derivatives of the hemp seed including, protein powder, soft gel capsules, oil, and hemp meal.

Many people wonder how hemp seeds compare to other common seeds like flax and chia. All of these seeds—chia, flax, and hemp—are great sources of plant protein and fiber. They do vary when it comes to their nutritional offerings. Hemp hearts have 10 grams of protein per serving, while chia and flax have only 5 grams per serving.

Additionally, hemp hearts have more omega fatty acids—with 12 grams per serving—than flax and chia seeds with 9 and 7 grams respectively. Hemp seeds are also unique in that they contain something called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is an anti-inflammatory omega fatty acid; flax and chia seeds do not.

When It’s Best

Hemp seeds are available year-round in many natural food stores. But hemp is often harvested in the fall.

Storage and Food Safety

Hemp seeds can spoil fairly easily. But when stored properly, a package of hemp hearts can last for a year. Packages of shelled hemp seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place or at cooler temperatures. The best way to prevent spoilage is to store hemp seeds in a sealed container in the refrigerator. When stored in a pantry, they will only last 3 to 4 months.

You can also store seeds in freezer-safe bags and store them in the freezer. You’ll know that hemp hearts have gone bad when they have a rancid smell.

How to Prepare

You can use hemp hearts to make many kitchen staples. For example, you can make hemp milk by blending hemp hearts with water, then straining them. Ground seeds can be used to make flour. Or you can use the ground seeds to make vegan protein powder. Some people extract hemp oil from the seeds and used for dressings and sauces.

Hemp hearts are versatile, so they can be used in a range of dishes, from sweet to savory. They help provide texture, a little crunch, and a subtle, nutty flavor. They’re a great protein-packed addition that can be sprinkled atop many dishes or included in a recipe as an ingredient.

Consider these simple ways to use hemp seeds, hemp milk, or hemp oil:

Hemp hearts—also called hulled hemp seeds—are a good source of protein and healthy fat. A 3-tablespoon serving provides 166 calories, 15 grams of healthy fat, and over 9 grams of protein.