Food regulation in Australia can be baffling sometimes. It’s so easy to walk into a supermarket and fill your trolley with foods that can potentially undermine your health like litres of soft drink and cheap doughnuts. Yet if you want to buy hemp seed, a source of vitamins and minerals and a rich source of protein and healthy omega-3 fat, it’s still officially banned for use as a food.
However, as the man behind the counter in a health food store selling $12 packets of hemp seed explained to me recently, he was legally able to sell me the product providing I only used it for non food purposes – as a body scrub perhaps- and didn’t accidentally sprinkle some on my muesli.
Yet hemp seed’s nutrition credentials are excellent, says Dr Trent Watson, an accredited practising dietitian and spokesman for the Dietitans Association of Australia which has been involved in trying to have both hemp seed and hemp seed oil approved for sale as a food in Australia - just as they are in the US, Canada and Europe.
“It’s very high in plant protein – just 30g of hemp seed, or about one tablespoon, provides around 11g of protein,” he says.
By comparison, an egg has about 6g of protein and 30g of cheese has 8g of protein.
“Hemp seed is also an easy way of getting more omega 3 fat into the diet – this fat helps reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and may help protect against heart disease, “Watson says.
But if hemp is so good for us, why isn’t it on the supermarket shelf along with other seeds like chia, pepitas, flax and sunflower seed?
The story so far is a tale of guilt by association. Although hemp belongs to the same family as pot – Cannabis sativa – it contains no or very low levels of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient with psychoactive effects, according to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), the government agency that regulates the ingredients in foods.
In other words, eating hemp seed won’t get you stoned.
Despite this, when FSANZ approved an application for hemp foods to be used as food in 2002 this decision was rejected by Australian ministers responsible for food regulation. The concern was that making hemp foods available might send a confused message to consumers about the acceptability and safety of illicit cannabis. In 2012 FSANZ again approved hemp seed for use as a food – only to hit another road block when ministers asked for a review of the approval. This review will now go to ministers in late June at which point it might be thumbs up for hemp, but there’s no guarantee.
If hemp seed does get the green light, it’s likely to be hyped as the next super food with a few inflated claims like it reduces cravings, improves digestion and lowers blood pressure, predicts Trent Watson.
“Although there‘s evidence of its nutritional value the claims that are made for hemp seed are a bit of a stretch and there’s no clinical research to back them up,” says Trent Watson. “It’s not a miracle food - just one of many other nutritious foods that are good to include. “
" If hemp is so good for us, why isn’t it on the supermarket shelf along with other seeds like chia, pepitas, flax and sunflower seed?"
If we are finally allowed to legally consume hemp, how would we eat it? Just as you would any other seed – they’re a good way to add a boost of extra nutrients, protein and fibre to muesli, porridge, muffins and dishes based on bulgur, quinoa or rice. Or as The Washington Post’s health pages reported recently, they also make a moreish no-bake brownie combined with cacao powder, dates, walnuts and vanilla. But while we wait for a decision from Canberra, we’d better substitute chia seed instead.