1995: Hemp As Food

Hemp As Food. SHARE Guide, Nov/Dec 1995, by Richard Rose.

Care, Handling, and Preparation of Hemp Seeds

It is taught that Buddha ate one hemp seed a day for three years in his ascetic period. If hemp seed was good enough for Buddha, it should be good enough for us. But how, and in what form? Other than ancient Shinto religious foods such as “asanomi,” hemp seed does not enjoy a long and rich history of use as food as does soybeans. Even though hemp has been in existence twice as long as soybeans, the seed’s hard coat not only protects its abundance of nutrients, but also makes it more difficult to use for food.

Hemp foods are high in TLC, not THC. There even exists certified low THC (less than 1.4%) strains of hemp in Europe, for fiber production. In the US and Canada, quite unlike elsewhere in the world, imported hemp seed must be rendered incapable of growing in order to be legal.

Of course, producing drug-free hemp or hemp seed without the proper permits in the US is the crime of marihuana cultivation. A recent article in the Colorado Law Review, (Volume 66, Issue 4) states that the intent of Congress was never to ban hemp production, a prohibition which was temporarily waived during World War 11. The infamous Harry J. Anslinger once said, “They can go ahead and raise hemp just as they have always done it” and he was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the precursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency.


Since thousands of tons of hemp seed are imported into the US every year, (mostly for bird seed) an infrastructure exists for sterilization of the imported viable hemp seed. There are many plants around the country which receive the imported viable seed under customs bond, nominally steam it at 212 degrees F for 15 minutes, then release it to the consignee or customer with a certificate of sterilization. I have never heard of radiation used to sterilize hemp seed in the US, or elsewhere. Additionally, it would not be economically feasible to do so, as it is not warranted and there are few facilities available for the process. Ethyl bromide may be used on hemp seed, as it used on all imported seed. It is said to be sufficiently volatile, so as not to remain on the treated seed very long.

(In the US l strongly suggest that when you purchase hemp seed you should also request a copy of the sterilization certificate from the vendor, and keep it physically near the seed as well as keeping a copy in your files. Alan Brady, an early developer of hemp foods, was arrested in California because the manager of his commercial cleaning mill called the Sheriff. Although charges were dropped and his seed was returned, cases such as this illustrate the need for keeping a certificate of sterilization on hand.)

Much is made of the alleged degradation to the seed by the steam sterilization process. I have seen no research to support such a conclusion. I believe that little damage is done to the seed by the steaming process, especially the fat, for a variety of lions: 1) the coat is very hard and usually remains intact; 2) the internal temperature of the seed is certainly well below 212 Fahrenheit degrees; 3) the seed moves about as it is steamed and thus can cool intermittently during the 15 minute process; 4) the protein is definitely not denatured by the process; 5) fats are not transformed at this temperature, although if a seed coat was broken it could begin to oxidize due to the heat and oxygen; 6) birds continue to thrive on the sterilized seed; 7) the process was designed to apply the minimum amount of heat to render the seed non-viable while still maintaining nutrition for birds; and 8) most expeller-pressed hemp oil is subjected to internal temperatures exceeding that of steaming, and for a longer period of time. However, I do believe that overall quality degradation of “freshness” is accelerated by the sterilization process, most evident in seed stored for longer periods of time.

The true senselessness of requiring sterilization of seed that is incapable of producing usable quantities of the drug THC is that the sprouting of hemp seed is the key to using it for many foods! Sprouting increases nutrition, improves digestibility, reduces cost (1 pound of seed will yield 3 pounds of sprouts, thereby cutting the cost by two-thirds), and most importantly, improves ease of handling since the coats are split and can be removed with water agitation or other methods. Therefore, companies in countries that don’t require sterilization have the edge in the production of hemp foods, especially for export. Fresh, raw, viable hemp seed is as tasty as sunflower kernels, and edible with no seed coats lodging in the teeth. There is the possibility of using natural enzymes to soften and remove the seed coat, which needs further research.

Foods From Hemp

There are 3 general methods for preparing foods from hemp seed: using whole seed, milling the seed, and using the oil directly. In whole seed processing the seed is left intact and incorporated as an ingredient in a mixture, such as in Hempeh Burgers or Mama Indica’s seed treats, or is further processed whole, such as Jamaica Jay’s roasted and seasoned snack seeds.

Milling the seed is best for products for which one prefers that the seed not remain whole, and that it not contain solely the fat portion of the seed. Milled seed foods may contain noticeable ground seed particulates, such as in One Brown Mouse cookies, or may be further processed to remove seed coat particles, such as HempRella. Additionally, raw or roasted hemp seed may be specially milled into a butter similar to nut butter, a delicacy long prized in eastern Europe but currently unavailable in the US.

Hemp seed can be processed very much like soybeans for use in soymilk, tofu, and secondary soyfoods. As with soybeans, a larger hemp seed with higher protein content is best. Soaking, milling, cooking, and extracting the fiber are the stages of soymilk production, which are also the same for hemp milk production. From soymilk one could make tofu, frozen dessert, cheese, or hundreds of other products. So it is for hemp milk. There are few soy-based foods that could not be made from hemp seed.

Hemp oil is useful in fat-based products such as Seldom Seen Green salad dressing, or in any product for which fat is an ingredient, such as frozen desserts or baked goods. However, this is the highest cost alternative, since hemp oil currently is in the $75 to $120 per gallon range and seed is $0.60 to $2.00 (or equalized to relative oil content and expressed in gallons, seed is $16 to $53). When using oil as an ingredient the quality of the oil is extremely critical. Low quality, rancid oil will have a short shelf life, an off-flavor, and a free radical formation.

About Hemp Oil

Hemp oil can be extracted by mechanical or chemical methods and used for soybean, flax, and other edible oils and fats. Far more critical to the quality of the finished oil than seed sterilization is the method of oil extraction. The optimal processing technique requires that the seed is crushed without solvent in an environment free of light and oxygen, with as little heat as possible, and quickly cooled. It should kept that way through final packaging or bottling.

Not all oil extraction plants have the capability of producing oil in this manner. Immediately after crushing, natural anti-oxidants should be added, such as odorless rosemary extract and Vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol). These protect the oil in the package and increase stability by reducing oxidation, which causes rancidity.

Oil rancidity is to be absolutely to be avoided in any food. Rancidity is toxic, damaging cell membranes, and impairing liver function and the immune system. Rancidity can sometimes, but not always, be noticed by a strange flavor and feeling (an astringency or burning) felt in the mouth and back of the throat. The measure of rancidity is how much peroxide and other toxic oxidation products have formed in the oil, called Peroxide Value (PV), and is expressed as number of milli-equivalents per kilo-gram. It is the best standard for measurement of rancidity since it varies by oil source, and the results should always be less than 10. Some very carefully pressed and bottled oils can be high as 20 and as low as 0.5. Olive oil often measures in at 20 because of the easy and low-tech nature of its pressing. Commercial corn oil often goes as high as 60 because the level at which com oil becomes unpalatable is 100. The PV at which the taste of an oil is objectionable varies from oil to oil, and I know of no studies which determined that level in hemp seed oil, although palatable hemp oil has been measured at PV 7. Whenever buying hemp oil always ask for a copy of the results of the Peroxide Value test performed on that batch, or test it yourself for $50 to $100 at most nutritional testing labs. The Smoke Point of hemp oil is 165 degrees C, the Flash Point is 141 degrees C, and the Melting Point is minus 8 degrees C.

Hemp seed is available through specialty seed brokers (always ask for food-grade seed), importers such as Ohio Hempery, and most other mail order vendors. Hemp oil is available from many mail order vendors of hemp products. Hemp seed and oil should always be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place. Hemp seed oil may be frozen, but should not be used for frying. It is naturally pleasant-tasting and green in color due to magnesium-rich chlorophyll and carotene. Currently, at least six companies in the Americas market bulk hemp oil. Most of it is pressed in the US under good conditions; some, being pressed in Canada, is bleached and deodorized; and now there is oil pressed in South America under questionable conditions. I know of no certified organic hemp seed, although some is rumored to be ready next year.

Pull quote: Far more critical to the quality of the finished oil than seed sterilization is the method of oil extraction.

Richard Rose is founder and president of Sharon’s Finest, a 15 year-old food product development and marketing firm located in Santa Rosa, California. In the 1980s he invented and marketed over 60 new products based on tofu and soymilk, such as TofuRella® which landed Sharon’s Finest on the 1993 “Inc. 500” list of fastest growing companies in the US. His latest products include HempRella cheese alternative and Hempeh Burgers. Richard is Chairman of the Food Committee of the Hemp Industries Association, a member of the International Hemp Association, as well as the Institute for Food Technologists. He also writes a monthly column on hemp for “Perceptions” magazine.

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