KANSAS: It seems like every few months a new superfood sprouts up and works its way into almost every aisle at the grocery store. Quinoa pasta, almond milk, chia-seed granola bars, flax cereal and kale chips are a few examples.
One of the newest hot superfoods might surprise you. Hemp seeds are now used to make everything from frozen waffles to milk, ice cream and protein powder.
Raw hemp seeds have a creamy texture and a nutty taste similar to sunflower or pumpkin seeds. They’re similar in size and appearance to sesame seeds, but hemp seeds are softer and have green specks.
Lisa Markley, a nutritionist and healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods, 7401 W. 91st St. in Overland Park, says that 15 years ago people were a little leery about consuming hemp seeds because, like marijuana, hemp is a variety of cannabis. But industrial hemp plants contain extremely low levels of THC — so noshing on hemp seeds won’t get you high.
As awareness about industrial hemp and its health benefits spreads — even Dr. Oz and Oprah have come out as hemp seed fans — more people are incorporating hemp into their everyday diets, Markley says.
Raw hemp seeds, the hemp product Markley recommends, are high in protein, fiber and healthy fats. They contain an almost ideal balance of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which support heart and brain health and are said to balance hormones.
Consuming the recommended 3-tablespoon serving over the course of one day is relatively easy: Just blend the seeds into smoothies or sprinkle on oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, salads and grilled fish.
Because it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in the United States without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration, most hemp seeds sold here are produced on farms in Canada, which legalized industrial hemp production 15 years ago. Last year, Canada exported more than $20 million (Canadian dollars) in hemp products — and about 88 percent of those products came to the U.S.
One of Canada’s largest hemp food producers, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, saw its sales double in 2011 and 2012.
CEO Mike Fata, a player in Canada’s movement to legalize industrial hemp, says it took a few years for his company’s products to catch on in the U.S.
Manitoba Harvest launched stateside in 2000. An ensuing legal battle with the DEA resulted in hemp products being yanked from grocery store shelves.
Manitoba Harvest and a group of other hemp food producers won their case against the DEA in 2004, but by that time, Fata says, hemp had been stigmatized, and many grocery stores refused to stock it.
Over the past five years, information about hemp’s health benefits and history has spread, and chains like Whole Foods, Costco and Kroger started selling more hemp products.
Manitoba Harvest, an advocate for the legalization of industrial hemp in the United States, helped launch Hemp History Week in 2010. The annual event educates the American public about hemp’s heritage.
“Thomas Jefferson was a hemp farmer,” Fata says. “Hemp has been a long, rich history in the United States. There’s nothing to fear.”
The movement toward legalizing industrial hemp appears to be taking root.
Last year, Colorado became the latest state to vote to legalize industrial hemp. A handful of other states, including Hawaii, California, Kentucky and Oregon, has done the same, but federal law still prohibits farmers from growing hemp without a DEA permit. And the DEA has yet to issue a permit to a commercial hemp farmer, according to Tom Murphy, National Outreach Coordinator for the nonprofit Vote Hemp.
Hemp farms could soon sprout at some universities. An amendment in the U.S. House version of the 2013 Farm Bill could make it legal for universities to grow hemp for research purposes — but only if the university is located in a state that has voted to legalize industrial hemp.
Kansas and Missouri farms aren’t growing hemp yet, but that isn’t stopping local food producers from using hemp seeds in everything from beer to chocolate bars.