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FROM HEMP SEED

Since 1998, when Health Canada introduced regulations for the commercial growing of industrial hemp in Canada, public interest and awareness has been unwavering and ever-growing.

Hemp is now grown across Canada, in 8 out of 10 provinces, from the Maritimes to BC, from points as far south as Chatham, Ontario to as far north as the Peace River Valley in northern Alberta.

There are many uses of the hemp plant, so many that Popular Mechanics in 1938 published an article touting "the Miracle Plant" and talking about 25,000 uses for hemp. Both the long and short outer fibres, as well as the woody core fibres of the stalk have numerous uses, but for the purposes of this article, we will be discussing only the production and use of hemp oil, derived from the hemp seed.

The hemp seed varies in size depending on the hemp variety, as well as environmental factors such latitude, type of soil, soil nutrients etc.

The seed is prized for both its oil and protein value. The oil comprises approximately one-third of the seed. This oil contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids than virtually any other oil, certainly than any other commonly-used food oil. Hemp oil contains about 85% essential fatty acids (EFAs): 60% linoleic acid, (LA), 20% alpha-linolenic (ALA), 4% gamma-linolenic (GLA), and 1.5% stearidonic acid (SDA). (These figures vary depending on many factors, and are meant only to give an approximation of EFA values.)

The high level of EFAs in the oil make it sensitive to heat, light and oxygen. Because it is largely destined for the health food market, it is normally expeller-pressed at low temperatures, in the absence of oxygen. No additional processing, such as refining, bleaching or deodorizing is done unless specified by a customer, generally one in the cosmetics field.

The advent of hemp's re-commercialization has been fortuitous: it has come at a time when food researchers and scientists have been finding more and more benefits for essential fatty acids, LA and ALA, and making them known to the public. Hemp oil's high level of EFAs has drawn attention from both manufacturers of both health foods and supplements and personal care products alike.

Many benefits of ALA (also known as Omega 3) have now been documented and no article on how to stay healthy would be complete without reference to this. Recently, the cover story of Newsweek magazine was on health and fitness issues, and made abundant reference to the need for EFAs in the diet. Knowledge of the benefits of ALA is common enough that Health Canada is considering allowing it to be put on labels of foods. They consist of increased flexibility of cell membranes, resulting in an increased ability for information to travel throughout the body. This has many benefits, including improved concentration, lowering of cholesterol (thereby reducing risk of heart and stroke disease), and increased mental alertness. Indeed, new research is finding excellent results in treating both ADD and dyslexia in children with ALA

Knowledge of the benefits of LA are not as well known, but they include relief for joint and arthritic pain, and decreased fatigue. LA also provides a balancing of insulin levels, so that one's general feeling of well-being is increased and the requirement for insulin in diabetics may be reduced.

Health Canada will tell you that a ratio of 3:1 Omega 6:Omega 3 fatty acids are necessary for optimal health. Hemp advocates will tell you that this is roughly the ratio that exists in hemp oil, proving the perfectly balanced nature of the oil. What they fail to mention is that the prevalence of Omega 6 in the North American diet means that most people have a large surplus of Omega 6 in their diets, and that most experts would agree that the average person needs more, not less Omega 6. However, Omega 6 is normally ingested in the form of processed foods, and the body has trouble metabolizing it. Ideally, and when taken in a purer form such as hemp oil, the Omega 6 is metabolized through the desaturatease enzyme to GLA.

Many people find that regular use of hemp oil at one tablespoon a day will have a profound effect on their sense of well being. Hemp oil is normally bottled in dark or opaque containers, and flushed with nitrogen prior to being sealed to prevent any oxygen from being trapped in the bottle. It is normally found in the refrigerated section of a health food store, or the health food section of a supermarket. Some companies have also enclosed it in softgels (one-piece gelatin capsules). In this case they are often not refrigerated. This presentation is relatively useless in the author's opinion, as one would have to take approximately 12 softgels per day to equal the recommended dosage of one tablespoon. Most people would probably just take 1 or 2 softgels, and think that they are getting an adequate supply of EFAs, when the truth is quite different.

Hemp oil, unlike flax oil, has a delicious taste. It is nutty and often buttery. If you taste a hemp oil, however, that leaves a sharp taste in the back of your throat, it has likely going rancid. If it is altogether sharp and acrid, it would be best to dispose of this oil.

The highly poly-unsaturated nature of hemp oil means that it should not be heated to high temperatures. But that doesn't mean it must be taken straight, by the spoonful. It's delicious taste makes it excellent for pouring over rice or pasta, using on toast in place of butter, or blending into smoothies. It can be used very successfully as a base for salad dressings, and some hemp food producers have made bottled salad dressings that use hemp oil as a base. Judges, all drawn from industry, at the Canadian Fine Food show in Toronto last spring were probably quite surprised to find that their blind taste tests had led them to pick two hemp-based salad dressings for two of three awards, including the top Award of Excellence.

The high LA and ALA content of hemp oil also make it ideal for body care products. It is the basis for soaps, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and more.

In 2000, approximately $25 million US dollars were generated at retail by food and personal care products containing hemp oil, up from only $200,000 only 5 years earlier. However, whether or not growth continues at this rate will depend largely on the actions of the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Hemp is botanically the same plant as marijuana, i.e. cannabis sativa. Because hemp is derived from cannabis varieties shown to contain extremely low levels of THC, the psycho-active ingredient in marijuana, most countries do not place controls on the levels of THC in ingestible products. In the most stringent regulations in the world today, Health Canada specifies that products derived from hemp seed, such as oil, must contain 10 ug/g or less THC, and define levels of under 4 ug/g as non-detectable. Most companies producing hemp products today can justifiably say that there is no detectable THC, as defined by Canadian protocol, in their products.

In October 2001, America's DEA published regulations which make ingestion of any level of THC illegal, without defining a testing protocol, or minimum detection limit. These regulations are currently being challenged both in court by American hemp companies, and through NAFTA by Canadian companies. As long as DEA accepts the Canadian protocol for THC detection, the growth of the industry will remain as healthy as the products themselves. Individuals and companies who would like to know how to comment to the DEA on this issue are invited to visit votehemp.org.

Politics not withstanding, hemp oil represents a wonderful health product and an amazing opportunity for new ventures and expansion of existing ones.

Written by: Ruth Shamai


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