To Your Health

Although hemp protein is by no means a perfect food, it is a valuable source of fiber, proteins, and essential fatty acids

Q. Extra protein at breakfast helps me get through a hectic morning, but I'm sensitive to dairy and soy, so I have been trying hemp protein powder instead. Blended with fruit or juice it tastes OK and boosts my fiber intake, but does it really have the "good fats" it claims? Also, is there any chance that eating hemp protein would lead to a positive drug-test result?

A. For decades the Drug Enforcement Administration allowed foods made with hemp seed and hemp oil to be sold in the U.S. as long as the hemp was grown outside the U.S., in Canada for instance. Such foods contain only a tiny fraction of THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. In 2001, the DEA suddenly decided that the Controlled Substances Act applied to food with any amount of THC, and in 2003, it banned the sale of all edible hemp products. The ruling was reversed in 2004, and hemp food products are available again.

Although hemp protein is by no means a perfect food, it is a valuable source of fiber, proteins, and essential fatty acids. Compared to flax and soy, an analysis of the nutrients in hemp protein is impressive. Hemp protein has more fiber than flax seeds, a more biologically balanced protein than soy, and is a good source of gamma linolenic acid, one of the anti-inflammatory fatty acids. The omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio is good, though not as good as flax. Some people have trouble with substances in flax seeds that release cyanide, and many people have trouble digesting soy products due to the presence of certain substances that inhibit protein digestion. Hemp protein does not suffer from these problems and, in addition, is easy to grow organically.

There is no doubt that hemp has been cultivated for centuries and used as a source of both food and fiber. There is also no doubt that its more potent relatives (marijuana for example) have been used for centuries to produce euphoria and other altered states of consciousness. As near as anyone can determine, the only real difference between hemp and marijuana is the higher concentration of THC in marijuana. Older studies, using less precise methods and instruments, indicated that consumption of hemp products could raise the urinary levels of THC above the limits used in drug screening. More recent research has found that concentrations of THC are considerably lower than those reported earlier, due either to changes in the commercially available hemp food products or to improved analytical techniques. It is now estimated that, in order to excrete the lowest amount of THC that would test positive by current government standards, one would have to consume at least two-thirds of a pound of hemp seeds, supplying 0.6 grams of THC, on the day of the test. Although this is a manageable amount, it is unlikely that anyone would purposely consume this much.

Even though eating a hemp food product is unlikely to produce a positive drug-test result, bear in mind that the legal limit for THC is not necessarily the safe limit. There has never been a documented fatality from THC overdose, but recent findings reveal changes in brain chemistry with even small amounts of THC. Most urine tests detect only THC carboxylic acid (an inactive metabolite) rather than THC or any of its active metabolites. Testing for the THC carboxylic acid metabolite may not relate to intoxication.

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