OverviewHemp seed oil is considered to be the best nutritional oil for health because its essential fatty acid (EFA) profile is closest to that required by the human body. Essential fatty acids are termed as such because the body cannot manufacture them. Therefore, they must continually be replenished in the diet. EFAs are not stored or used for energy as are other fats. Instead, they are used as raw materials for cell structure and as precursors for the synthesis of many of the body’s vital biochemicals, including hormones and prostaglandins.
Because our brains are made of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, many assume that the only way you should obtain these is by eating such things as fish, which have the long-chain fats. Such plant sources as hemp seed oil, coconut oil, and flax seed oil are made up mainly of medium-chain fats, which non-vegetarians quickly point out. However, when long-chain fatty acids are eaten, they must be emulsified by bile salts in the small intestine before they can be absorbed into the body. Short- and medium-chain fatty acids are absorbed directly through the portal vein to the liver, where they are immediately available to the body.
Hemp seeds are the only natural source to boast of having the ideal ratio of EFAs required by the human body, which is roughly 3:1 of omega-6 to omega-3, the two most important EFAs. Flax oil ranks second as a valuable EFA source, but flax seed is not in the optimal proportion. Rather, it has the opposite ratio – 1:3. After about two years of regular use, flax seed can evenually cause omega-6 deficiency symptoms.
By weight, hemp seed is 30-35% oil, of which 80% consists of polyunsaturated EFAs, specifically the two most important ones – linoleic acid (LA – omega-6 at 60%) and linolenic acid (LNA or ALA – omega-3 at 20%). These are the parent compounds which build longer-chain fatty acids. LNA then converts to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – two of the most critically needed forms of EFA and LA converts to AA (arachidonic acid), which has opposite effects of those from DHA.
An excess of AA – the result of too much omega-6 – ultimately leads to such health problems as inflammation and, more importantly, increases blood clotting, which can cause heart attack, stroke, or embolism. In the last 40 years, the American diet has become loaded with excess omega-6 from corn and soybean oil, margarine, and similar processed fats. At the same time, Americans eat 500 mg of omega-3 per day, much less than they need. Consequently, instead of the 3:1 ratio they should be getting, most people consuming the western-type diet, end up with a ratio of 50:1.
Other fatty acids in hemp seed oil include: Palmitoleic acid, Heptadecanoic acid, Arachiditic acid, Eicosenoic acid, Behenic acid, Erucic acid, Lignoceric acid, and Nervonic acid; but it also contains several higher fatty acids. It is one of the only food oils to contain the direct metabolites of LA and LNA. Most notable are GLA (gamma linolenic acid from LA) and SDA (stearidonic acid from LNA), which serve as intermediaries in the formation of longer-chain fatty acids and vital hormone-like prostaglandins in the body. Because of this, hemp seed oil is able to circumvent the impaired EFA metabolism and physical compromise that can result from genetic factors, intake of other fats, aging, and lifestyle patterns.
Gamma Linolenic AcidGLA and SDA are not considered to be “essential” because the body is also able to convert some of the parent compounds into GLA and SDA, a process that happens through the enzymatic action of delta-6-desaturase. However, there are many health conditions and nutritional deficiencies that interfere with this process. Therefore, GLA may very well be an EFA for such individuals as the elderly, diabetics, those with excessive cholesterol, common viral infections, and a zinc deficiency. It is vital for those consuming an excess of saturated fats, refined oils, fried foods, alcohol, and sugar. Trans-fatty acids also inhibit the production of GLA and SDA.
GLA is used in both the pharmacological and cosmetic industries. The most important use is in the area of chronic skin disorders such as neurodermatitis. Used both internally and externally, GLA can balance a lack of essential fatty acids and return the moisture loss of the skin back to normal hydration. The alleviating action of GLA on psoriasis, atopic eczema, and mastalgia are already well documented and GLA preparations are frequently prescribed for the treatment of them. GLA has also been researched for its beneficial effects in cardiovascular, psychiatric, and immunological disorders, particularly that of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, and premenstrual syndrome.
GLA is found in minute quantities in most animal fats. Oats, barley, and wheat germ also contain small amounts, as does human milk. Excellent sources of GLA, though, are hemp seed and hemp seed oil (2-6%), blue-green algae (spirulina), evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, borage oil, and some fungal oils. None are as tasty as hemp seed oil and consequently, not nearly as versatile either.
In order to introduce hemp seed oil into medicinal preparations, it would be necessary to increase the GLA content in the seed from the present 2-4% to about a 10% level. Hemp oil with a 10% GLA content would immediately replace other oils. A seed-hemp cultivar (Finola) grown in Finland, and now in Canada, has GLA and SDA levels of 4% and 2% respectively.
Symptoms of an LNA (omega-3) deficiency include: dry skin, growth retardation, weakness, impaired learning ability, poor motor coordination, behavioral changes, impaired vision, high blood pressure, sticky platelets, edema, mental deterioration, low metabolic rate, and immune dysfunction (see more under Hemp as Medicine)
Although LA (omega-6) is present in our bodies in much greater quantities and because the western diet has an over-abundance, deficiencies are rare but can happen. Symptoms of an LA deficiency include: skin eruptions (acne and eczema-like), loss of hair, poor blood circulation, behavioral disturbances, liver and kidney degeneration, gallbladder problems, prostatitis, muscle tremors, abnormal water loss through the skin (sweating profusely), susceptibility to infections, impaired wound healing, male sterility, miscarriage, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and growth retardation.
These deficiency symptoms are all reversible with adequate intakes of EFAs but if ignored for a long time, health problems can develop into more serious degenerative conditions.
Saturated Fatty AcidsWhile there are many pictures of the horrors of eating saturated fats being painted today, they are necessary to the body. It is the excess consumption of them from meat and fried foods that raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol. This excess contributes to the formation of arterial plaque, thus raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Saturated fatty acids (SaFAs) are an important source of calories. When our energy needs are met, our bodies metabolize excess fatty acids into SaFAs for storage as adipose tissue. There are only small quantities in vegetable oils – about the right amount that is actually needed. Hemp seed oil is composed of about 8% saturated fat.
Foods grown closer to the equator have a higher quantity of SaFAs and less of the polyunsaturated fatty acids. The reverse is true for foods that grow closer to the poles in the colder climates. The reason for this is that plants and seeds that must survive freezing temperatures produce fluids that remain liquid even below the freezing temperature. Tropical plants produce oils that will remain stable in hot conditions. This is the reason that SaFAs are often solid at room temperature while polyunsaturated fatty acids remain liquid at below-freezing temperatures.
- link oxygen, electron transport, and energy in the process of oxidation. Oxidation “burns’ food to produce the energy required for life processes. EFAs are involved in the transporting of oxygen to all our cells and can be likened to magnets that pull oxygen into our body. EFAs appear to hold oxygen in cell membranes to act as a barrier to viruses, fungi, and bacteria.
- increase metabolic rates and burn more fat into carbon dioxide, water, and energy, sometimes resulting in weight loss.
- form cell membranes and function and keep them fluid, maintain hormone balance, prevent drying and cracking skin conditions, bring sheen to the hair, helps prevent cardiovascular disease, arthritis, auto-immune disorders and more,and help with wound healing, breast pain, pre-menstrual syndrome, and multiple sclerosis.
- help produce life energy in our body from food substances, and moving that energy throughout our systems, thereby governing growth, vitality, and mental state.
- particularly, ALA and its derivatives, can lower cholesterol up to 65%.
- ldisperse throughout the body, giving biological systems the power to carry such substances as toxins to the surface of the skin, intestinal tract, kidneys, or lungs, where these substances can be discarded.
- are vital since the brain is comprised of 12% fat, mother’s milk is 40% fat, and the eyes are 60% fat – of which, DHA from omega-3 is the most abundant! DHA stays in the body for only about a week so must be replenished frequently for optimal health.
- are very sensitive to light, heat, and oxygen. Therefore, hemp foods should be stored in cold, dark places to preserve potency.
- lsubstantially shorten the time required for fatigued muscles to recover after exercise. They also facilitate the conversion of lactic acid to water and carbon dioxide, which is especially important to athletes.
- In hemp seed oil, they do not change when heated. The smoking point is 332°F (165°C), but the oil can be cooked at temperatures up to 475°F for no longer than 30 mintes. Tests have shown that this temperature does not change the configuration of fatty acids in the hemp seed oil as it does in some other edible oils. This ability to withstand heat is quite unique among polyunsaturated fats, since most oils – like canola, soy, flax, and fish oils – quickly convert to trans-fats when heated at much lower temperatures for far less time. Even fish, when cooked, can convert its omega-3 to trans-fats.
Combining hempseed oil with temperature-stable oils increase the ability of the hempseed oil to withstand heat and provides the most ‘good’ fat and fewest trans-fats from cooking. The ideal oil for this is avocado oil, which has a smoke-point 50% higher than olive oil. It also has a large percentage of monosaturated fatty acids, which have a positive effect on health. Hemp seed oil maybe added to avocado oil at a 5-10% level (3-6 tbsp of hemp seed oil per quart of avocado oil). This amount will provide a good amount of omega-3 while still withstanding the heat of normal cooking. The use of this avocado-hemp seed oil blend is perhaps the most healthful choice possible, since it will displace the use of other less-healthful cooking oils and butter.
- have a slippery quality that helps make blood platelets less sticky. Sticky platelets clot more easily and can block blood vessels, causing stroke, heart attack, or embolisms. EFAs, on the other hand, help to clear the body’s arteries caused mainly by the imbalance of EFA ratios in the fats that are consumed.
- convert into hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins, which regulate such cellular functions as communication, cholesterol production, and blood platelet aggragation. Since different prostaglandins often have opposite effects, they are needed by the body in a delicate balance obtained from a balanced intake of the two essential fatty acids (omega-6 and omega-3). For instance, the prostaglandins that key up the body’s response to stress are all made by omega-6 fatty acids while the ones that gear down the body’s response to stress are nearly all made by omega-3 fatty acids. Not surprisingly, stress-related diseases tend to respond to omega-3 supplementation.
- are precursors to the prostaglandin series (PGE 1, 2, and 3). PGE1 inhibits the production of cholesterol and dilates blood vessels and prevents the blood clotting of platelets in arteries. A study reported in 1992 indicated that a diet of hemp seed causes the serum levels of total cholesterol to drop dramatically. Blood pressure also decreases after several weeks of eating hemp seeds, apparently because of the steady supply of EFAs.
EFA DosageAlthough there is no official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for EFAs, many experts recommend a minimum of 3% of calories from omega-6 and 1% from omega-3 fatty acids. Pregnant or lactating women should double this intake.
One tablespoon of hempseed oil or 1 ounce of shelled hempseed supplies roughly 6.6 grams of omega-6 and 2.2 grams of omega-3 - just the amounts needed for a 2000-calorie diet. This is a suitable amount even for vegetarians and takes into account the conversion ration of 1% ALA to DHA, the currently accepted conversion rate for plant sources of omega-3s. However, those who lack suchenzymes as ethnic groups with a history of high fish intake may have difficulty converting ALA to DHA.
EFA LabelingIn the modern Western diet, omega-6 is plentiful to excess; but omega-3 is relatively rare. In Canada, there is a strange law that makes it illegal to disclose any omega or EFA content on a product label. Only polyunsaturated, monosaturated, and saturated fats are permitted. This is just one of the regulations in Canada designed to favour dairy concerns over public health. To make matters worse, it is illegal to favour dairy alternatives and promote them – ironically, in a land noted for its omega-rich canola, flaxseed, and hemp seed crops.
Essential Fatty Acid ComparisonsThe ideal ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids (LA:LNA) in the human body is 3:1. Based on this, the following comparison is made among the most common edible oils:
- Flax seed oil -- 1:4
- Canola oil -- 2:1
- Hemp seed oil -- 3:1
- Soybean oil -- 8:1
- Olive oil -- 9:1
- Wheatgerm oil -- 10:1
- Sunflower oil -- 71:1
THC ContentMany people still remain fearful that consuming hemp oil will cause a positive reaction in drug screening tests. Although this was possible at one time, the chances are very slim that could ever happen today. According to Dr. Jace Callaway, a Finnish scientist and developer of the FIN-314 variety of hempseed (Finola), in a personal correspondence, in the early days of hempseed processing, much of the hempseed oil was taken from Chinese hempseed where the THC (delta-9-tetra-hydro-cannabinol) was typically 1% or higher on uncleaned seed. THC levels in those oils varied according to whether or not the seed was cleaned before pressing. Today, almost all hempseed oil is produced from clean, low THC varieties from the EU and other certified sources.
Technically, there is no THC in hempseed. It is found only in the flowers, buds, and leaves of cannabis. However, since the seed is produced in those areas of the plant, resin can remain during harvesting and processing. Any levels of THC in seed and seed derivatives are residual and attributable to the plant variety and to the cleaning process. Extensive cleaning may lower THC levels, but some residual resin can remain on the seed. This problem is now dramatically minimized or even eliminated since the advent of very low THC varieties, as FIN-314 from Finland, Santhica from France, and many others.
THC build-up, or bioaccumulation, in the body is really not relevant to health and only significant in the interpretation of urine tests. Hemp foods are generally processed to temperatures above 60°C (140°F). Because of this heating, a portion of the THC (if there is any) will be in its naturally free carboxylate form. This is important because the THC-carboxylate is not absorbed by the digestive system. Steam-sterilized seed, for example, has a higher percentage of its THC (if any exists) in this ‘free form’, compared to the fresh viable seed.
Under the Industrial Hemp Regulations published by Health Canada, allowable THC content for oil and other derivatives is currently set at no more than 10 mcg/g of THC (that is, 10 milligrams per litre or 10 parts per million or 0.00001% or 10 ppm). Switzerland, on the other hand, has a limit of 50 ppm or 50 mg/kg for hemp oil products while hempseeds are set at 20 mg/kg. To reach even these conservative levels, a hemp food lover would have to consume more food than would be feasible.
Some are worried about giving hemp foods to children since they are more sensitive to chemicals in general (see here). Cannabinoid receptors are developed during puberty. Therefore, since little or no THC exists in hemp foods today and what does exist is in a ‘free form’ and, since children would not be affected anyway, there is no reason why they cannot eat these healthy products. They obtain far more harm from all the processed foods already served to them on a daily basis.
Dr. Gero Leson has worked on several projects that involve TCH urinalysis using hempseed oils. Some examples are found here:
- Evaluating the Impact of Hemp Food Consumption on Workplace Drug Tests
- Evaluating Interference of THC in Hemp Food ProductsWith Employee Drug Testing
TestPledge helps alleviate concerns that eating hemp foods or using hempseed products will cause positive drug tests. Hempseed producers that have signed with TestPlege are obligated to comply to their standards/
A 2001 assessement of THC in foods and cosmetics by Dr. James Geiwitz and an Ad-hoc committee.
Low Fat DietsReductions of essential fatty acids (EFAs) in ultra-low fat and fat-free diets actually cause people to feel hungrier than they did before going on such a diet. It can also begin the process of dangerous EFA deficiency which causes people to binge on high-calorie foods to compensate for feeling unsatisfied.
The body absolutely requires fat in the diet in order to process such fat-soluble nutrients as vitamins A, D, E, and K as well as phytochemicals. Fat substitutes, like Olestra, Oatrim, and Simplesse for example, slide through the digestive system intact – which most people think is advantageous. But, fat substitutes compound a problem by not only being unable to aborb these nutrients into the body, but also they carry them directly into the feces for elimination.
Fat-free diets have been correlated with violent, short tempers in human and animal studies. Such diets can also cause high cholesterol levels because the body produces excess cholesterol in an attempt to make up for the lack of EFAs.
Hempseed oil, therefore, may be thought of as a “diet” oil, because it contributes fewer calories than most other oils or fats and because it is so rich in EFAs, vital for cell metabolism. Experts say getting more than 12-15% of calories from EFAs will actually aid in burning off excess fat and thereby contributing to weight loss.
Problems with Fish OilToday, many people are trying to obtain their omega-3s from fish or fish oil supplements. There are problems with this approach. For the vegan, and some vegetarians, this source is not an option and should not be for many others as well. Some of these concerns are addressed in the section entitled Inferiority of Fish Oil.
Trans-fatsAccording to the FDA, the average American eats 5 grams of trans-fats every day. This is the equivalent of 1000 mg of omega-3s per day -- if this amount were replaced by hempseed oil. Trans-fats are so toxic to the body that the FDA is expected soon to require food labels to disclose thier content in the nutritional facts panel on packaged foods. One FDA scientist believes that removing trans-fats from margarine would save 2,100 deaths annually in the US, and removing them from just 3% of the cookies and crackers would prevent 5,600 deaths per year. Over twenty years, health costs would be reduced by $59 billion.
One way to determine roughly the trans-fat content of a food is to add the number of grams of polyunsaturated, monounsaturate, and saturated fat listed in the “nutrition facts” panel. Subtract that from the ‘total fat’ listed. The remainer is approximately the amount of trans-fat in the product.
Oil ProcessingHemp seed oil is obtained much like other vegetable oils. Typically, whole hemp seeds are put into a special press that squeezes out the oil. Hemp seed oil is best extracted mechanicallty in a light-free and oxygen-free environment and should be stabilized with such antioxidants as vitamin E, vitamin A, or rosemary extract to prevent rancidity. The package should then be topped off with an inert gas, as nitrogen or argon, and kept from heat and light. Maximum ripening of the seed and removal of immature seeds are important for the production of quality oil. Large, dark, plump-looking seeds make the best oil.
Unrefined hemp seed oil extracted by cold-pressed methods varies in colour from off-yellow to dark green; but all still have that pleasant, nutty taste. Oil that tastes ‘off’, with a ‘fishy’ or a ‘paint’ smell is rancid and should be discarded. Old seeds can have an orangey colour, resulting from the enzyme lipase digesting the fat in the seed. Hemp seed is full of enzymes, including lipase and protease. In fact, it was in hempseed that scientists first discovered enzymes. The sharp taste of fresh hemp seed is caused by these enzymes.
Since manufacturing quality will greatly impact the quality of the oil, it is advisable to purchase only the highest-quality hemp seed oil. Although hemp seed oil is expensive in comparison to refined, solvent-extracted, or heat-pressed oils, it is far superior in nutritional value. It is estimated that if cultivated again in the US, the cost of hemp seed oil would be comparable to that of corn oil.
Hempseed oil is best stored in the freezer. It will stay fluid and does not need to be defrosted. One to 3 tablespoons is the suggested daily intake for adults; children can take half that amount; and breast-fed babies obtain its benefits through the mother’s milk.
- Hemp Seed Oil -- one European hemp oil fatty acid study
- Online Shopping at JeffOtto.com -- articles on the health benefits of hemp seed oil
Where to buy:
- In North America: Hemp Oil Canada - (They also provide Finola.)
- In Europe: Finola - (Finola hemp seed foods are also sold in North America through Hemp Oil Canada.)
This page was updated in November 2005.