Politics. Religion. Money. Hemp. All fall under “things not to talk about at the dinner table.” While the first three make sense, it’s strange that a plant that has been used since the dawn of humanity and has more than 25,000 known applications can still be so misunderstood today.
Mostly that’s because hemp is closely linked to marijuana, which itself has been central to many heated debates in the last several decades. While hemp and marijuana do have like origins, there are many aspects that differentiate the two.
Hemp and marijuana are both individual byproducts of the cannabis family of plants. However, hemp is not marijuana, and marijuana is not hemp—despite coming from the same plant source. The most important difference is hemp only contains very trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and therefore cannot produce the “high” that is characteristic of marijuana.
There are many positive benefits associated with each, however. Hemp has found hundreds of modern-day uses in products ranging from milk to clothing, and medical marijuana has been a topic of discussion for its health benefits that are starting to come to light. Both developments show there is much hope for realizing the tremendous positive potential of the hearty and relatively inexpensive cannabis crop.
In honor of Hemp History Week, we take a closer look at the many ways to use this versatile plant and investigate just how different it is from marijuana.
In recent years, hemp has been distinguished as an agricultural crop, rather than a drug, allowing farmers the potential to grow it en masse after years of being shunned.
Hemp comes from the stalk of the cannabis plant and has fibrous properties that make it adaptable for a number of uses. That’s unlike marijuana, which comes from the flowering buds that posses the majority of the chemical concentration of THC.
One of the great things about growing hemp is that it doesn’t require constant attention during the farming process. It is a tough, resilient plant that requires little water and irrigation, which is a testament to its earth-friendly nature. And it’s usually grown without the use of pesticides, making it truly organic. Even better, hemp can be harvested in just about 120 days in almost any variety of soil. Its quick rate of growth has also been effective in cleaning the soil in polluted areas affected by chemical spills and natural disasters.
Because of its fibrous texture and convenient growth cycles, hemp has proven to be a very versatile product and has found a niche market in clothing, paper, and building materials, but also health foods.
Hemp in diets
Hemp seeds, hemp oil, and hemp protein are all nutritious and reliable food sources that balance out a well-rounded diet and add to overall health and well-being.
Much like chicken, beef, and fish, hemp seeds contain all 20 amino acids and the nine essential amino acids that the human body is incapable of producing, therefore making the seeds a complete source of protein. Just three tablespoons of hemp seeds will provide 10 grams of protein. This is particularly beneficial for vegetarians and vegans that abstain from eating meat but need a reliable source of the nutrient.
In addition, hemp seeds are an excellent provider of minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and iron, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They also have a good amount of fiber, which may contribute to a healthier digestive tract. Most users also enjoy the taste, which can best be described as a nuttier tasting sunflower seed.
Hemp protein powder
As an alternative to popular whey (a.k.a. dairy-based) protein powders, organic hemp protein powder is a great inclusion for a healthy diet and can provide a burst of energy in morning smoothies or before or after workouts.
Whey protein is a byproduct of cheese production. Like hemp, it contains all of the essential amino acids and roughly 17 grams of protein per scoop.
Hemp protein has 14 grams of protein per scoop, but makes up for it with an additional three to four grams of beneficial fat.
Hemp oil is produced when hemp hearts (the raw, shelled seed) are cold-pressed to extract the oil. As such, hemp oil retains all of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and the oil tastes great drizzled on salads, added to smoothies, or used as a substitution for cooking oils.
Ways to eat hemp every day
Here are a couple of ways you can get a good dose of hemp on the regular:
Healthy snacks: Hemp seeds and oils are finding their way into organic granolas and cereals where they complement other natural organic ingredients like berries and coconut. Protein and energy bars are another convenient option you can throw in your bag.
Smoothies: Daily smoothies are a great opportunity to up your intake of hemp. Use hemp milk as a base, add in a scoop of hemp protein powder, and blend in hemp seeds for some added texture. Try these recipes for a pomegranate smoothie and hidden greens blueberry smoothie—both are great for kids, too, since they effectively “hide” the healthy ingredients with lots of taste and color.
Other common uses of hemp
Food is not the only area where hemp has an important role. Even U.S. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all actively grew hemp and advocated its production for commercial purposes.
Hemp clothing and textiles
The use of hemp as a clothing material can be traced all the way back to 8,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. It’s here that archeologists uncovered the oldest textile fiber on record. After centuries of cultivation in Asia, hemp cloth spread to Europe around 1,200 B.C., and the rest of the world followed shortly thereafter.
Hemp mimics many of the properties of cotton, but its fibers are much stronger, meaning it can produce anything from from light summery cloth to ultra-strong rope like a yoga strap, which maintains its strength even when wet.
From an environmental standpoint, hemp production has a much smaller ecological footprint than cotton farming. Hemp cultivation requires the same amount of energy to produce one ton of finished textiles, but it does so on only half as much land. And hemp crops require only a fraction of the necessary irrigated water (400 liters compared to 10,000 liters in cotton plants).
Environmentally-friendly hemp paper
Around 150 B.C., the Chinese began experimenting with hemp and developed papermaking techniques, which makes it one of the oldest paper sources on the planet. Because of its tough fibrous stalk and rapid growth-to-harvest time, hemp provides an ideal economical means for producing paper.
In fact, since hemp production was outlawed by the United States government in 1937, 70 percent of natural forests in the United States have been destroyed for paper production. On the converse, to supply the 54 million metric tons of paper used by Americans each year, the U.S. would need to convert just 1 percent of available farmland for hemp-specific paper farming. That’s because the average acre of hemp produces nearly four times the fiber pulp of an acre of trees, and can do so in only a matter of months compared to the 40 or so years it takes for a paper tree to fully develop.
Hemp paper is also more efficient for recycling. It doesn’t require the harmful dyes to whiten it during the recycling process and its strength makes it extra durable for several cycles. So whereas normal tree-sourced paper can undergo the recycling process just two to three times, hemp paper can be properly recycled eight times before being ultimately disposed of.
Hemp beauty products
There are a variety of hemp-based beauty products that all tap into the organic benefits and natural germ-resistance of the cannabis plant. The list includes:
These are all made with hemp oils and other organic ingredients that naturally keep you fresh and clean.
Hemp in building materials
“Hempcrete,” a light cement-like material that can be used for structural purposes, has been discovered in buildings dating back to 6th century France. More recently, it has been reintroduced into more modern buildings in Europe, some that reach up to ten stories high.
In American houses, hemp has often been used to produce insulation. It is pressed into fiberboard and particleboard, which help to keep temperatures steady during different seasons.
Hemp in plastics
Another promising area for hemp is in the production of plastics. At the conclusion of a two-year study, civil engineers at Stanford University found that hemp plastics would be the most beneficial short-term and long-term solution to the waste of the traditional kinds that are currently used.
After being deposited into a landfill, hemp plastics break down in just a few short weeks as opposed to the years it takes for traditional plastics. Researchers hope to one day replace the billions of plastic bottles currently polluting the environment with a cheaper, more durable, and greener replacement like hemp.
Marijuana differs from hemp in that it is sourced primarily in the flowering buds of cannabis plants where concentrations of THC are housed. THC interacts with different chemical transmitters and cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce the “high” for which it is most widely known.
However, recent groundbreaking medical research and growing legalization of the drug supports the idea that marijuana has a number of medical applications. Medical marijuana has been used by many to replace or enhance current treatments for a range of conditions, though it’s not a widely accepted practice.
Though research into many of these beneficial treatments continues to be hampered by the illegality of the cannabis plant, some of the benefits are slowly coming to light.
Medical marijuana applications
Here are just some ways that medical marijuana has been seen to be helpful in treating some medical conditions.
Treatment of seizure disorders
Based on findings from a recent study, Epidiolex, a drug derived from CBD (which is a non-intoxicating compound from the cannabis plant), has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for “compassionate use” at some epilepsy centers. Among a 137-person test group, seizures decreased by an average of 54 percent and that rate lasted the entire 24-week trial period.
Further testing in children that have a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome has also shown progression and life-changing benefits. In certain cases, medical marijuana was found to be the only effective option for treatment, as was the case with one young patient named Charlotte Figi. Her story in particular prompted a movement to provide further research into this area of study.
Chronic pain relief
According to clinical trials conducted at McGill University in Montreal, several patients showed a decrease in chronic pain when using medical marijuana as a treatment. In 2016, 66 percent of drug overdose deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid, so one reason some experts are in favor of medical marijuana is that it could help cut down on prescription drug overdoses in the U.S.
The Drug Enforcement Association recently granted a license for the first controlled research study of medical marijuana treatment for individuals dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since this study is the first of its kind, results are still pending, but many U.S. veterans have said that medical marijuana has helped ease symptoms and allowed them to discontinue using prescription drugs.
Veterans have spoken so passionately about the benefits that U.S. lawmakers have approved measures that clear the way for medicinal marijuana to the considered as a viable treatment option.
Final thoughts on hemp and marijuana
While times are changing, there still continues to be strict government regulation of all materials associated with the cannabis plant, regardless of THC content.
However, a recent Gallup poll indicates a record high 58 percent of Americans are in favor of marijuana legalization. Even more promising is that the public perception of hemp is becoming less auspicious due to recent research and education that touts its many health benefits and lifestyle applications. A new farm bill allows farmers in 28 states to grow hemp for research or pilot programs.
Continued investigation into the various uses of hemp continues to play a key role in changing stigmas and provides a bright future for this tremendously inexpensive, organic, and solution-oriented material.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho