Cereals, snack bars, and other foods made with a seed that’s full of concentrated nutrients for your heart and skin are in danger of being pulled from the food supply forever. Hemp seeds rival soy in protein content and are a potent source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), vitamin E, and antioxidants. But nutrition buffs aren’t the only ones noticing hemp — legal circles are buzzing, too. That’s because hemp comes from the same plant species as marijuana. Even though edible hemp seeds contain little to no THC, the psychoactive component their cousin is infamous for, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says any amount of the substance in food is illegal. The small but determined hemp industry has sued the DEA, countering that hemp foods cannot elicit druglike effects. In June, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the agency’s ban, saying the government did not follow procedure when it first announced the rule. Until the court decides on the constitutionality of the prohibition, hemp foods can still be legally imported, sold, and consumed in the United States.
Curiosity about these foods continues to grow. Makers such as Nutiva and Nature’s Path have added hemp seeds to products like bars, frozen waffles, and granola. At home, hemp oil can be used to make salad dressings, while the seeds can be eaten plain as a snack or toasted and sprinkled atop casseroles and salads.
Their concentration of EFAs makes hemp oil and seeds unique, says Ellen J. Fried, who teaches food law at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. These fats are necessary for normal brain and heart function as well as healthy bones, skin, and hair. Since your body doesn’t produce EFAs naturally, you have to eat foods that contain them: salmon, walnuts, spinach, flaxseed — or hemp.
Hemp seeds are also a direct source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid that plays an important role in regulating blood pressure and inflammation, says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. GLA may also improve skin conditions like eczema, Fried says.
Sass says that while hemp’s nutrient profile is positive, further research is needed to determine if eating it has a significant impact on health.
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