Illinois: Hemp: Good Stuff, Bad Rap

More people are choosing this balanced food source despite legal potshots

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune

United States: Hemp: Good stuff, bad rap Hemp, its advocates say, is nature's perfect food source.

It has omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, contains 33 percent protein, is a good source of vitamin E and is low in saturated fat. It's an environmentally friendly crop that grows fast and requires few pesticides.

We can't farm it

Hemp is also a controversial food source because of its relationship with its naughty cousin, marijuana. Hemp seeds can contain trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

While it is legal to import, sell, purchase and consume industrial hemp in the U.S., it is illegal to grow it without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it is virtually impossible to get such a permit. The policy stems from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, when all varieties of cannabis were put into the category of schedule 1 drugs, alongside the likes of heroin.

The DEA tried to ban hemp food consumption in 2001, citing THC concerns. The ban was struck down in court.

But we can use it

Recent years have been good to hemp foods, which have gone mainstream, sitting alongside flax and soy in health food stores and appearing in the form of hemp oil, hemp milk and hemp butter, as well as in salad dressings, nutrition bars, breads, cookies, waffles and frozen desserts. It's also in personal care products like soaps, shampoos and lotions.

Sales of hemp grocery and body care products in the U.S. were $37.9 million in 2009, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to market research company Spins Inc., which specializes in the natural products industry (hemp grocery sales surged 42 percent between 2007 and 2008). Those figures exclude data from Whole Foods Market and several other large stores, so the Hemp Industries Association estimates sales are closer to $113 million to $129 million.

Hemp for food products comes mostly from Canada.

Industrial hemp, which also is imported from China and Europe and used to make fabric, paper, rope, construction materials and biodiesel, comes from the same genus and species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but represents a different varietal.

Industrial hemp plants have very low quantities of THC.

In Canada, regulations keep THC content under 0.3 percent.

"You can't, under any reasonable circumstances, get high or blow a drug test from eating industrial hemp," said Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather, president of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians. Smoking hemp would just give you a headache and irritate your airway, he said.

Hergenrather said he eats one to two tablespoons of hemp oil a day, usually in salad dressings. Hemp oil should not be used for frying because unhealthy byproducts are formed at high temperatures.

In his book "Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill," Udo Erasmus calls hemp "nature's most perfectly balanced oil" because it has a good proportion of essential nutrients from a single source. It has more protein than all seeds except soy and more omega-3 fatty acids than all seeds except flax.

Look-alike fears

A primary concern among those opposed to the legalization of hemp farming is that it could facilitate marijuana production. Industrial hemp and marijuana plants look very similar, so it's possible to obscure marijuana plants in a hemp field.