High-Tech Hemp – How Is This Humble Seed Moving Beyond its Hippie Heritage?

hemp milk and seeds

hemp milk and seeds

Do you remember when we broached the subject of cockroach milk? That article garnered quite a lot of interest, creating a buzz around this ‘alternative’ beverage and the question of sustainable farming. Recently, we double-checked the shelves of our local grocery store to be sure that this substance wasn’t already available (it wasn’t – phew!) and lost ourselves in the sheer range of non-dairy milks available, even without harvesting crystals from cockroaches. Yes, there were the usual standbys of soy, almond, and rice, but we also noticed macadamia nut, cashew milk, and hemp milk.

Wait? Hemp milk? Is that even legal? And the short answer is yes. Hemp is legal. Sort of. Let’s look a little closer…

From nutraceuticals to fashion to marine ballast, hemp really seems to have it all.

Hemp is a leafy green plant in the Cannabacaea family – a group of angiosperms that includes the otherwise better known sibling marijuana. But unlike this favorite hippie drug of the sixties, hemp is genetically different in that it contains only minimal tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of the Schedule 1 controlled substance we know as cannabis. Although THC is technically available, the small quantities are metabolized so swiftly that they – like poppy seeds with trace opiate content – have no effect on the body. In other words, consumption of hemp in any of its forms will not get the user high nor will it cause a false-positive result on a drug test – a point to which we will return later. In addition, unlike marijuana which tends to be limited to medical and recreational uses, hemp performs an enormous variety of different functions, depending on which part of the plant is leveraged. From nutraceuticals to fashion to marine ballast, hemp really seems to have it all.

And harvesting hemp is not a new idea. In some significant ways, the history of this plant is tied closely to that of our own species, with one of the oldest artifacts of human civilization – a scrap of hemp fabric – dating back to the year 8,000 BC.(1) Moreover, it has a venerable history in our own United States, with the first North American crop planted in 1606 in Port Royal (modern day Nova Scotia) by French botanist Louis Hebert. As keen-eyed historians will recognize, this was a full fourteen years before the historic founding of the pilgrims’ first settlement in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts; before, in effect, the birth of the nation.

That said, the pilgrims were quick to understand and to embrace the easy-growing crop. In some colonies, farmers were required to cultivate it, and future presidents John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson all grew hemp. By 1938 the magazine Popular Mechanics estimated there to be over 25,000 commercial uses for the plant and in the early 1940s the U.S. army was growing over 400,000 acres for the war effort.(2) In fact, it was not until 1970 – with the Nixon Administration’s enactment of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act – that the plant, once the largest domesticated crop around the world, finally fell out of favor. Inherent in the act was a zero tolerance policy for THC which effectively banned the cultivation of any and all plants in the cannabis family.

For almost 35 years, hemp remained prohibited within the United States until a 2004 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overrode the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) ban on hemp foods, making it legal for manufacturers to import hemp.(3) Fast-forward one full decade and the Farm Bill of 2014 moved to define industrial hemp as distinct from cannabis, thereby permitting farmers to cultivate it within the context of  research and pilot programs.

And this quasi-legitimization, coupled with advances in modern processing technologies, has paved the way to greater applications for this versatile plant. With refined techniques, we can now use both the seed and the stalk, creating three distinct categories of products from each. In addition to the ubiquitous hemp seeds in chi-chi, upscale – read, expensive – smoothies, hemp nuts can make their way into bread, granola and be milled for protein powders. In addition, the oil can be pressed for uses as varied as margarine and varnish, ink and fuel. And finally, the ‘cake’ can be turned into flour or added as a supplement to animal feeds. Lionized for its clean protein and healthy fats, the diminutive hemp seed boasts an outrageously powerful nutritional profile. How powerful? Let’s take a look…

According to Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, the largest supplier of hemp-based products to the U.S. retail market, hemp seeds are ‘rich in protein and have all 10 essential amino acids. They also contain omega-3, omega-6, stearidonic acid (SDA), and the rare omega-6 Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) [which] has been shown to help with cholesterol, inflammation, skin and hair health, balancing hormones, and general heart health.’(4) With a glycemic load of zero, no trans fats, no cholesterol, and no sodium, a 30 gram serving of these super seeds contains 11 grams of clean protein and 14 grams of healthy fats. It also provides an abundance of magnesium, zinc, iron, and phosphorus, along with a daily dose of fiber.

Bottle with hemp oil and hemp seed


But doesn’t the seed oil contain CBD? We’re glad you asked and the answer is that it does not. While the medical marijuana industry leverages the analgesic properties of cannabidiol (CBD) extracts to treat pain, stem inflammation, and to relieve anxiety, the compound is not ubiquitous in all members of this family of plants. In fact it is only derived from the leaves of the cannabis plant so those hemp seeds sprinkled on your upscale salad are most definitely safe to enjoy. So does this mean that hemp’s usefulness is limited to an add-in for post-yoga health snacks? Again the answer is ‘No’ – hemp is so much more than that…

In fact, within the industry, hemp is known as a ‘tri-crop opportunity’ with even the stalk offering three different components for use. Working from the outside inwards, the tough fibers of the stalk itself can be used in much the same way as wood pulp – for paper, cardboard, or as a filter, and additionally in biofuel and ethanol. The bast fiber is the part that most consumers have in mind when considering hemp fabrics and is used to create rope, canvas, netting, shoes, bags, and eco-friendly carpeting. What’s left – the center of the stalk known as the hurd – finds its way into fiberboard and insulation, animal bedding and concrete. And given that hemp contributes to such a diversity of products, it should comes as no surprise that the market is significant. According to the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) the national retail value of hemp products in 2014 was in excess of $620 million.(5)

And, like a weed, that figure is only set to grow.

According to Food Dive, an online portal for grocery retailing news, the market specifically for nutritive products derived from hemp just may be about to explode. Although Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods estimates that only 1% of consumers have actually partaken of the seed, last year (2016) saw an uptick of 44% in sales of hemp foods.(6) That increase brought the market to $129 million with a vast amount of room for continued expansion. And in the slipstream of increased awareness of this ‘new’ superfood additional market players will follow, all with an eye on their share of the humble hemp pie. And of course, from a contamination-control perspective, this booming market expansion is where the situation could become problematic.

…Hemp Foods Australia issued a recall of its hemp protein and hemp powder products due to a fear of tainting with salmonella and listeria.

As we demonstrated in our piece on turmeric, Food Contact Surfaces: Spice Manufacturing, although hemp is a ‘natural’ product, the moniker does not necessarily mean that it is immune to contamination. In fact, as relatively new as this hemp revival might be, recalls of some products are already in place. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), a Richmond, CA, company Nutiva initiated a voluntary recall of its O’Coconut™ with Hemp and Chia products due to concerns about contamination by salmonella which, as we recall from previous articles, can cause severe – sometimes fatal – infections in susceptible individuals.(7) Similarly, in 2015 Hemp Foods Australia issued a recall of its hemp protein and hemp powder products due to a fear of tainting with salmonella and listeria.(8) Clearly a worrying development.

With this in mind, it is worth noting that although Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods is the largest supplier to the U.S. retail market, Hemp Oil Canada may hold the title as the most interesting. At least as far as the purported safety of its processing facilities goes. According to their website, Hemp Oil Canada boasts the distinction of being the world’s first processor to attain the Food Safety System Certification 22000, an accreditation recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Requiring active auditing by third party experts, this accreditation is based on strict ISO standards and is recognized in 140 countries worldwide.(9) In addition, the company operates an allergen-free plant with a dedicated Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. And this is especially significant in the food industry as the HACCP is a system of documented protocols that form an active deterrent to chemical, biological, or physical risks of contamination in manufacturing, handling, distribution, and consumption.

…it will incorporate a 4,000 square feet cleanroom dedicated to the blending and packaging of protein powders, hemp burgers, and food bars.

And there’s more good news. In an announcement last month, Hempco Food and Fiber Inc. of Alberta, Canada, began work on the construction of a 56,000 square feet facility to process up to 5,000 tons of hemp seeds and 2,000 tons of hemp nuts annually. This state-of-the-art plant has been developed with food processing firmly in mind – with even the floor sealant selected to conform to food grade CGMPs. Furthermore, it will incorporate a 4,000 square feet cleanroom dedicated to the blending and packaging of protein powders, hemp burgers, and food bars. And as the company states on their website, food safety is their highest goal:

“Hempco® has already begun implementing BRC “AA” level safety and quality control measures and software systems that will raise the “hemp industry bar” to produce the highest quality products with the greatest efficiency in a state of the art – “pharmaceutical grade” facility for: hemp food processing, hemp fiber processing and hemp nutraceutical low THC CBD processing.”(10)

But as encouraging as this may be, there is one market into which neither Hempco nor Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods nor even Hemp Oil Canada will be selling: the U.S. Air Force. Remember that earlier question of drug testing and false positives? Well, in a preemptive strike against the possibility of service personnel abusing their mess hall supply of Chobani’s Blueberry Power Flip yoghurt, the company was forced to revise its recipe to remove the hemp seeds. As an Air Force spokesperson insisted:

“In order to ensure military readiness, the ingestion of products containing or products derived from hemp seed or hemp seed oil is prohibited. Failure to comply with the mandatory provisions of this paragraph by military personnel is a violation of Article 92, UCMJ.” (11)

Indeed. In a time of growing political unrest, it’s easy to agree that nothing should compromise the readiness of our military forces. Not even the humble hemp seed.

Love them or loathe them – what do you think of hemp products? We’d love to learn your thoughts!



  1. https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/hemp-101-what-is-hemp-whats-it-used-for-and-why-is-it-illegal
  2. https://manitobaharvest.com/about-hemp/
  3. http://www.votehemp.com/legal_cases_DEA.html
  4. https://manitobaharvest.com/about-hemp/
  5. https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/hemp-101-what-is-hemp-whats-it-used-for-and-why-is-it-illegal
  6. ibid
  7. https://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm439285.htm
  8. http://www.shopnaturally.com.au/healthy-households/hemp-foods-australia-product-recall/
  9. http://www.fooddive.com/news/grocery–hemp-foods-seek-high-that-so-far-has-been-largely-elusive/440479/
  10. http://www.crossroadstoday.com/story/35167003/industrial-hemp-processing-facility-underway-in-alberta
  11. http://www.webpronews.com/chobani-recall-comes-just-weeks-after-hemp-seed-removal-2013-09/