Uses of Industrial Hemp: Food, Fuel, Fiber
by Mari Kane
Cannabis Hemp really can provide all the basic necessities
of life: food, shelter, clothing and medicine. It has
been said that "anything made from a hydrocarbon
can be made from a carbohydrate." Hemp is the cousin
of marijuana. They are from the same plant -- Cannabis
sativa L. There are over 1,000 strains of Cannabis Hemp
bred for various uses. The term "Hemp" refers
to the industrial use of the stalk and seed of certain
varieties; Cannabis or "marijuana" refers
to the smoking or ingesting of the flowers and leaves
of certain other varieties.
Psychoactivity requires high levels of THC -- Tetrahydrocannabinol.
Cannabis contains 5%-10% THC. Industrial hemp contains
only .3%-1.5% THC, yet has a higher concentration of
Cannabidiol, or CBD, which maintains an inverse relationship
with THC and tends to moderate its effects.
The plant itself is easy to grow in temperate as well
as tropical climates, and requires the usual amount
of fertilizer and water, but no pesticides nor herbicides.
A hemp crop is usually harvested in 100-120 days after
reaching a height of 4-15 feet, depending on the variety.
At that point one can make it into whatever suits their
The hemp seed is the only source of food from the hemp
plant. It is not really a seed, but an achene -- a nut
covered with a hard shell. Hemp seed is used for people
and animal food, and industrial use. Whole hemp seeds
imported to the United States or Canada must be sterilized
to prevent sprouting. This is not the case in Europe
where fresh seeds are used. Shelled hemp seeds are the
latest technological advance.
The whole seed contains roughly 25% protein, 30% carbohydrates,
15% insoluble fiber, Carotene, phosphorous, potassium,
magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc, as well as
vitamins E, C, B1, B2, B3 and B6. Hemp seed is one of
the best sources of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) with
a perfect 3:1 ratio of Omega-6 Linoleic Acid and Omega-3
Linolenic Acid, good for strengthening the immune system.
It is also a source of Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA) which
is otherwise available only from specialty oils like
evening primrose oil or borage oils. Whole seeds are
made into snack bars, cookies and porridge, or they
may be roasted and consumed alone or in a trail mix,
or brewed with coffee or beer. Wild and domestic birds
love hemp seeds, too.
Removing the outer coating of the hemp seed produces
a wonderful nut that is being used in many different
food applications, including snack bars, cookies, nutbutter,
chips, pasta, tortillas and hummus. The flavor is nutty
and can be used as a topping on just about anything.
It can be roasted with spices or just eaten raw.
Hemp seed is 30% oil and is low in saturated fats. Hemp
seed oil is good for lowering cholesterol levels and
strengthening cardiovascular systems. The oil has a
pleasantly nutty flavor. Among the foods hemp seed oil
is made into are sauces, butter, salad dressings, condiments
and pesto. Processing of hemp seed oil starts with drying
the seeds to prevent sprouting. The seeds are then pressed
and bottled immediately under oxygen-free conditions.
Hemp seed oil is fragile and should be kept refrigerated
in dark, air tight containers.
Seed Meal and Presscake
The meat of the seed is also highly nutritious and versatile
as a seed "meal" and may be made into hemp
milk and cheese, non-dairy ice cream, burgers, and anything
else one might conceive of. Left over from pressing
the oil is the "presscake" -- high in amino
acids, which can be crushed for animal feed or pulverized
for flour to make breads, pastas or pancakes.
Throughout history, hemp has provided a nourishing
food supply to many cultures around the world. In Asia,
roasted hemp seed is eaten as a snack, like popcorn.
In Russia, hemp butter was used as a condiment by the
peasant folk. In Poland, seeds are used for holiday
sweets. Hemp seed was eaten by Australians during two
famines in the nineteenth century. The most famous hemp seed
consumer is Buddha himself, who ate them during his
fast of enlightenment.
One of the fastest growing market sectors for hemp seed
oil is body care products. The phenomenal essential
fatty acid content of hemp oil makes it ideal as a topical
ingredient in both leave-on and rinse-off bodycare products.
The EFAs help soothe and restore skin in lotions and
creams, and give excellent emolliency and smooth after-feel
to lotions, lipbalms, conditioners, shampoos, soaps
and shaving products.
Non-Food Oil Uses
Other non-food uses for hemp seed oil are lamp lighting,
printing, lubrication, household detergents, stain removers,
varnishes, resins and paints. In this area, hemp seed
oil is similar to linseed oil.
One of the most valuable parts of the hemp plant is
the fiber, commonly referred to as "bast,"
meaning that it grows as a stalk from the ground. Other
fibers such as sisal, manila hemp and jute are mistakenly
referred to as hemp, yet only Cannabis sativa is considered
"true hemp." Among the characteristics of
hemp fiber are its superior strength and durability,
and its resistance to rot, attributes that made hemp
integral to the shipping industry. The strong, woody
bast fiber is extracted from the stalk by a process
known as decortication. Hemp fiber contains a low amount
of lignin, the organic glue that binds plant cells,
which allows for environmentally friendly bleaching
without the use of chlorine. In composite form, hemp
is twice as strong as wood. All products made with hemp
fiber are biodegradable.
Extracted from the bark of the stalk, this type of fiber
is called "long" because it stretches the
entire length of the plant. The length of the fiber
enhances the strength and durability of the finished
goods. Hemp can grow to 15 feet or more, making it excellent
for textile production. Hemp is most similar to flax,
the fiber of linen products. By contrast, cotton fibers
are approximately 1-2 cm in length and are prone to
faster wear. Hemp fiber also has insulative qualities
that allow clothing wearers to stay cool in summer and
warm in the winter. It also provides UV protection.
Long hemp fiber is used in twine, cordage, textiles,
paper, webbing and household goods.
The short fibers, or 'tow," are the secondary hemp
fibers. While not as strong as the long fibers, the
tow is still superior to many other fibers. Tow is extracted
from the long fibers during a process called "hackling,"
a method of combing and separating the fiber from hurd.
Short fibers are used to make textiles, non-woven matting,
paper, caulking, auto parts, building materials and
As long ago as 450 BC, the Scythians and Thracians
made hemp linens. The Chinese first used hemp for paper
making in 100 AD. Hempen sails, caulking and rigging
launched a thousand ships during the Age of Discovery
in the 15th century. The American Declaration of Independence
was drafted, but not signed, on hemp paper.
Also known as hurds or shives, the core is the woody
material found in the center of the hemp stalk. It is
rich in cellulose, a carbohydrate that can be made into
paper, packaging and building materials, as well as
plastic composites for making skate boards, auto bodies
and interior auto parts such as door panels and luggage
Hemp biomass as a source of fuel is the most under-exploited
use of hemp, due to the fact that it is economically
unfeasible at this time. Hemp stalks can be used in
the generation of energy through a process called "chemurgy"
which is a cross between chemicals and energy. The hemp
stalk can be converted into a charcoal-like substance
through a process called pyrolysis, and used for power
generation and to produce industrial feed stocks. Auto
giant Henry Ford was a pioneer in the pyrolysis process,
and operated a biomass pyrolytic plant at Iron Mountain
in northern Michigan.
Hemp as an auto fuel is another potential use. Almost
any biomass material can be converted into methanol
or ethanol, and these fuels burn cleanly with less carbon
monoxide and higher octane. In fact, the diesel engine
was invented to burn fuel from agricultural waste, yet
ended up burning unrefined petroleum. Hemp seed oil
can also be refined to produce a type of biofuel. Woody
Harrelson recently toured the west coast with a diesel
bus run on hemp biofuel, and a hemp-powered car toured
North America a few summers ago, demonstrating the environmental
benefits of biofuels.
The Hemp Industries Association (http://www.hempindustries.org)
Nutritional/Medicinal Guide to Hemp Seed by
Ken Jones, Rainforest Botanical Laboratories
The Great Book of Hemp by Rowan Robinson,
Inner Traditions International
Hemp: Lifeline to the Future and Hemp
for Health by Chris Conrad, Creative Xpressions
Hemp Today edited by Ed Rosenthal, Quick American
Journal of the International Hemp Association,
International Hemp Association
HempWorld -- The International Hemp Journal,
updated from Hemp Pages, 1997, published by