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Dear Mark: How Primal is Hemp?

Posted By Mark Sisson On January 11, 2010 @ 8:54 am In Dear Mark,Nutrition | 35 Comments

As I’ve always said, part of the Primal Blueprint [7]’s power is its continuing evaluation and evolution. As a broad lens defined by tried and true physiological principles, the PB can effectively assess and (when appropriate) seamlessly accommodate “new”/rediscovered practices and foods. Readers send me questions all the time that help redefine or further confirm the Blueprint’s existing range. Here’s one such inquiry.

Dear Mark,

I’ve been seeing more hemp products in the stores these days and have friends who call themselves hemp converts. They say it’s a good protein source. What do you think of hemp? Do you consider it Primal?

Hemp products have indeed exploded onto the marketplace in the last few years. Consumers appear to have waved off past alarm about drug associations. Up until the late 1990s, a large portion of the U.S. hemp imports came from China, where industry practices often left measureable levels of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Since Canada legalized industrial hemp in 1998, the import picture has shifted. Today most hemp products come from Canada and are essentially free from THC contamination. (The U.S. doesn’t allow cultivation within its borders.)

If you look at the nutrition, there are some reasons to recommend hemp. As seeds go, they’re a good source of protein. (Industry sources sometimes say 33% protein. Other sources, including a university nutritional overview [8] concluded 25%.) For a plant source, it’s a thoroughly respectably source of usable protein (albumin and edestine being the primary forms) and offers all the essential amino acids. Hemp also contains a healthy dose of fiber, vitamin E complex, iron, magnesium, and potassium. Then there’s the fatty acid content. Hemp is very high in PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to the tune of 80% or so. Although the prevailing CW would fall down and worship the very acronym on the page, there’s more to the picture as Primal types know. Yes, hemp has a good amount of omega-3 to its name, and it also has plenty of omega-6. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio comes out around 3:1, which is considerably better than soy but still falls short of the PB-recommended 1:1. (The omega-3 is also in the form of ALA rather than the preferred DHA and EPA.) To its credit, the omega-6 content does include the healthier gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SA), both of which are believed to be anti-inflammatory in nature. Nonetheless, the very high PUFA content makes the seeds and oil prone to rancidity.

I think we’ll see more research coming out in the next few years exploring the particular health benefits of hemp now that the drug-associated fervor has died down and the public understands that these products don’t pose a psychoactive risk. Traditional practice supports hemp’s anti-inflammatory action. Specifically, the GLA and SA in hemp are credited with effectively treating skin disorders, particularly eczema. Some recent studies also point to hemp’s positive influence on immune function [9], and its prevention of unhealthy blood platelet aggregation [10] (clumping), which researchers attribute partly to the GLA content. Finally, other researchers have explored hemp’s apparent stimulation of the brain enzyme calcineurin, which helps support both cardiac [11] and neurological functioning [12].

In terms of palatability, the shelled seeds have a fairly nutty, mild flavor. I’ve enjoyed the seeds in salads and have seen people add them to homemade protein bars. Some folks liken them to sunflower seeds or pine nuts – fitting comparisons, I think. Although hemp seems to be fairly well tolerated and don’t contain the same anti-nutrients that soy does, those who are more sensitive to other seeds might find the same digestive reaction with hemp.

I can’t personally speak to the oil’s taste, but I’ve heard it can vary considerably by brand. (Hemp eaters, what say you?) If you purchase the oil, it’s of course important to look for cold-pressed and store it in a dark container in the refrigerator. As for hemp protein shakes, I’d say they’re reasonable secondary alternatives for those who can’t/won’t eat whey-based. I’d definitely put hemp above soy in the #2 spot. That said, I’d do a little homework into the processing of the brand, given the high PUFA content and its rancidity risk. Look for cold pressing (for initial oil removal) and cold milling (for powder production).

Finally, as to whether hemp is Primal or not, I’d put it (like other seeds) in a supporting role. It’s not main Primal fare, but – when eaten in its healthiest (fresh) state – it can complement a good Primal eating plan.

Let me know what you think. As always, thanks for the questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!


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[8] university nutritional overview: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/klu/euph/2004/00000140/F0020001/00004811

[9] hemp’s positive influence on immune function: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18589601

[10] prevention of unhealthy blood platelet aggregation: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18418423

[11] cardiac: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20037164?itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum&ordinalpos=17

[12] neurological functioning: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14627499

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