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Getting the Munchies for Hemp

Cannabis has been in the news recently, with states like Colorado and Washingtonlegalizing the recreational use of marijuana. But the cannabis plant is surprisingly versatile, and drugs aren’t the only thing produced from it. Paper, fabric, rope, animal bedding, and even building materials can all be made from cannabis that’s bred to have no drug value. This form of cannabis is called hemp, and one industry where it’s gaining a loyal following is food.

Young entrepreneur Jeremy Koosed has built a business around hemp seeds. Tucked into a strip mall in Lyndhurst, Ohio, Plant Kingdom Bakery and Snackery doesn’t sell your typical snacks. Instead, the shelves are lined with items like Coconut Currant Hemp Bar, Lemon-Salted Hemp Seeds, and the popular Goo Ball.

Hemp is at the heart of the operation here, and owner Koosed serves it up in baked goods as well as on its own. “We sell hemp seeds and toasted seeds and crunchy seeds, the seed oil and shelled hemp seeds and hemp protein,” said Koosed, who could go on at length about the various ways to make use of hemp, such as on salads or in granola, pudding, dips, and smoothies. Once shelled, he says the seeds are really soft and pleasantly nutty. “It can really fit into any kind of dish -- salads or raw food preparations, or you can…mildly pan toast them with some potato salad, for instance. That’s really good.”

Another topic close to Koosed’s heart is thehealth benefits of hemp. He calls them a protein powerhouse. “When the shell's taken off the seeds, it's 33% protein by volume and a source for those good omegas,” he said, referring to the omega-3 fatty acids present in hemp seeds.

Cleveland Clinic dieticianLaura Jeffers agrees. She sees patients with food intolerances like celiac disease. With their high protein content, healthy fats, fiber, and anti-inflammatory properties, she says hemp seeds are a good bang for your buck. “They’re a great way to get all that in easily, and there’s not a whole lot of calories or extra things that you have to worry about,” said Jeffers, who now recommends them to her patients with food sensitivities.

The appetite for hemp products is on the rise, and for now foreign countries are filling the demand. The U.S.imported more than $11 million worth of hemp products -- mostly food -- in 2011, compared to just $2 million in 2000.

Dr. Ozturned his followers on to the power of the hemp seed, andCostco
now sells them in bulk. But many contend that in addition to their health appeal, there are significant environmental benefits to hemp. “It’s a very robust crop,” said Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia whostudies the cannabis plant. “It has a vitality that allows it to survive in difficult conditions with insects and fungi and other pests,” he said, adding that it’s such a fast-growing crop it can outcompete many weeds.

Hemp dominates an area, said Page, and requires little herbicide or pesticide. It can grow in abroad range of climates.

As to how it differs from its drug cousin, Page said they’re the same species -- Cannabis sativa. “The difference is purely chemical,” he said. Hemp has been bred to have very low levels of THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. So it’s impossible to get high from eating hemp seeds.

More people stateside are curious to tap into hemp’s potential, though efforts have been stymied by federal laws that prohibit hemp farming. Things are changing, however. The recently passed farm billgives farmers the green light to grow hemp on pilot sites instates that already have pro-hemp laws on the books. “Hemp is in a real resurgence, and it’s primarily on the food side,” said Page.

Many national farm groups support hemp legislation, including a recent endorsement from theAmerican Farm Bureau. Here in Ohio supporters are hoping to bring the issue to voters as a ballet amendment.

Back at Plant Kingdom, owner Jeremy Koosed would like to source his product locally. He hopes the laws around American hemp production change because he thinks the plant could be useful to so many industries, not just food but textiles, body care, and biofuel. “We want this resource to be the subject of innovation,” said Koosed.

But for now his customers are happy to crunch on Canadian seeds in their newfound favorite snacks.

anne.glausser@ideastream.org | 216-916-6129