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Healthy Hemp Hearts – Without a High

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Looking for a new, offbeat vegan ingredient to experiment with, or to act as a conversation starter? Well, look no further than hemp hearts or hemp seeds. Often associated with the marijuana plant, they are now finding their way into vegan recipes as a rich source of protein and fibre.

Hemp hearts are the edible interior of the seed from the hemp plant. The white, soft things you buy at the shop are actually the “heart” rather than the seed – that is, the inner seed, which when on the plant is housed in a small, brown hull.

Hemp shares some characteristics with the marijuana plant because they both come from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. They look similar – they even have similar leaf features – and can be difficult to tell apart. But they also have some physical differences – the marijuana plant has thicker stalks while the hemp’s stalk is thinner and taller.

Most importantly, though, the hemp plant contains low or negligible levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the psychoactive component of the plant, the part that delivers the “high” associated with marijuana. While marijuana can deliver a THC hit of up to 30 per cent (10 per cent is more common), hemp has just 0.3 per cent. That’s definitely not going to get you high, but don’t just take our word for it – this study found that eating hemp seeds had little effect on a person’s THC levels. That means there’s definitely no need to worry about workplace drug tests.

Aside from food, the hemp plant is used as a raw material in textiles, animal feed and building materials. In Asia, both Thailand and New Zealand have legalised the use of hemp seeds as a food product.

In some US states, local authorities allow the commercial production of hemp, which thrives in warm weather and well-drained soils. Cultivators of hemp sow the seeds directly into the soil, which should rich with organic matter when starting production. Many producers prefer hemp to crops such as corn because it grows vigorously with less fertiliser and water and also repels pests.

Why are hemp hearts special?

Hemp seeds are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. They also contain an optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids for a balanced diet and are recommended as an alternative to other vegetable oils. Why does this matter? Our bodies are unable to produce essential fatty acids, so we need to get them from our diet. Hemp seeds contain omega-3 essential oils like alpha-linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA – an unsaturated fatty acid that is typically found in nutritious breast milk.

The protein content of hemp hearts also makes them more digestible for humans compared to protein from soya beans. A 2008 study found that hemp’s protein structure is easily ingested compared to soy protein isolates used as a meat alternative. Protein isolates are protein structures that contain fewer carbohydrates, fats and lactose.

Hemp hearts may also help address digestive problems such as constipation, with some studies showing that small portions can have laxative effects. 

Hearty hemp seeds for cooking

Despite their size, hemp seeds are surprisingly full of flavour. Some food authors describe them as nutty and earthy – sort of like a cross between flaxseed and pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. Texture-wise, they offer a slight crunch but are chewier in nature, similar to a pine nut.

If you regularly use hemp hearts in your cooking, it’s fine to store them at room temperature or in a cool dry place. But most recipes recommend you store them in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain their high nutritional value. Raw hemp hearts are safe and a common way of eating them is simply to sprinkle them in your smoothies or over your cereal or muesli for breakfast, much like cacao nibs or chia seeds.

But if you’re looking to vary your vegan cooking, try making your own hemp tofu. This recipe uses the same method as when making traditional tofu but replaces soya milk with hemp milk that is used to form the curds.

Hemp tofu mimics soya-based tofu but has a denser and more granular texture that in its thickness resembles tempe. Cooking hemp tofu is no different from cooking other types of tofu – you can fry, sautee or even bake it. But to really take advantage of its crumbly nature, try scrambling it to fill your burrito or bulk your vegetarian chilli.

If you’re whipping up a white and creamy pasta sauce you can use hemp hearts to give it more bulk and density. This recipe for cauliflower hemp pasta uses hemp hearts that have been blended with water to create a milky and creamy sauce. Similar to nut milk, hemp seed milk is a great alternative for vegans who want a non-dairy cream-like sauce. Add cauliflower to the sauce and you have the richness and thickness of a pasta sauce without the heaviness and saturated fats associated with normal cream. 

You can also use hemp seeds to add protein to vegan patties or nuggets. This gluten-free recipe lets you make your own version of vegan millet nuggets by playing with the fillings – add some paprika, chilli flakes, garlic or any kind of vegetables together with hemp seeds

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