Is Hemp Paleo? Ancient History Suggests Yes.
By Morris Beegle and Steven Hoffman
Cannabis sativa, the plant that produces marijuana and its non-psychoactive cousin hemp, has been used by humans for more than 25,000 years. Here, we explore how hemp can be incorporated as an integral part of a healthful Paleo Diet and sustainable lifestyle.
Is hemp Paleo? Some Paleo purists have argued no. However, history suggests that ancient human ancestors – the Denisovans, living 160,000 years ago on the Tibetan Plateau – may have been among the first to discover the benefits of the Cannabis sativa plant for food, fiber and medicine – long before the advent of civilization and agriculture, thus qualifying it for consideration in a Primal Diet and lifestyle. Both marijuana and its non-psychoactive cousin hemp come from the cannabis plant, the origins of which have been traced back 28 million years to this central Asian region that lies at an elevation of 10,700 feet between the Himalayan mountain range to the south and the Taklaman Desert in China to the north.
According to other historians, during a short period of time at the end of the last Ice Age, Stone Age humans in Europe and Asia independently began using cannabis. Some studies suggest that cannabis entered the archaeological record of Japan and Eastern Europe at almost exactly the same time, between about 11,500 and 10,200 years ago.
“The cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early at 10,000 years ago, or even earlier,” said researcher Tengwen Long of the Free University of Berlin in Germany.
Long and his research team suggested that different groups of people across Eurasia independently began using the plant at about the same time, perhaps for its psychoactive properties but also as a source of food and medicine, or even to make textiles and clothing from its fiber. They hypothesize that use of the plant spread rapidly as nomadic cultures on the Eurasian steppes mastered horseback riding, allowing them to cover vast distances and establish trading routes which would become the famed Silk Road several millennia later.
In the United States, hemp was produced and used extensively for centuries. It became an important material for everything from rope to sails to clothing. In fact, the original American flag sewn by Betsy Ross was made from hemp. Yet after existing for millions of years in nature, and proving to be of great use in numerous everyday applications, hemp and marijuana were made illegal by the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Stories abound as to why.
Today, marijuana, with its intoxicating THC content, is still considered illegal federally in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act, although as of 2020 11 states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington – and Washington, D.C., have legalized the sale of recreational marijuana. An additional 22 states have legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized adult use and possession.
Hemp, however, has had more federal success than its high-THC cousin. Hemp can now be legally farmed, produced and sold throughout the United States as a result of the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp, also known as industrial hemp, is defined as having less than 0.3% THC. At such minimal levels, hemp is not intoxicating; it cannot get you high. As a result of the historic legalization of hemp after more than 80 years of prohibition, it is now experiencing a huge renaissance. Good thing, too, as hemp has more than 25,000 recorded uses, including food, CBD (cannabidiol) for medicine, fiber for textiles, raw materials for bioplastics and building materials, and more.
Given the explosive demand for all things made from hemp as a result of it now being legal, some estimates predict the U.S. market for hemp products will surpass $20 billion in sales by 2024. And now that we can legally study and utilize hemp in the modern age, who knows what uses and applications we will discover in the future about this incredibly versatile plant?
Hemp: The Original Superfood
Fortunately for followers of the trending Paleo Diet, which emphasizes the consumption of foods that would have been available in the Paleolithic Age (meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and roots) while eschewing more dairy and processed foods, hemp has been consumed and used as least as early as the Paleolithic era (approximately 2.5 million years ago). In modern times, foods made from hemp seed, banned as recently as 20 years ago in most grocery stores and many natural foods stores, is now considered a popular superfood. Hemp is included as a highly nutritious ingredient in many natural and organic foods and beverages, from shelled hemp seed, hemp seed oil and protein powders, to hemp veggie burgers and plant-based milk made from hemp seeds.
To be clear, hemp seeds contain little to no THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis (0.3% – 1.5% on average). Small dry seeds with hard shells, hemp seeds are similar to sunflower or sesame seeds, with a mild, nutty flavor. They can be consumed raw, sprouted or in powder form. Hemp seeds will not get you high and are perfectly safe to eat.
Dense in macronutrients and micronutrients, three tablespoons of hemp seeds provide 11 grams of protein (hemp seeds contain all the essential amino acids, providing a complete protein profile), 13.5 grams of fat (in particular, heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids), 2 grams of carbohydrate, and 2 grams of fiber, and they are a rich source of iron, Vitamin E, phosphorous, magnesium and zinc. Whole, shelled hemp seeds, often referred to as “hemp hearts,” are an abundant source of soluble fiber, which can aid digestion, maintain healthy gut flora, and help manage blood sugar levels.
“Not bad for a little seed,” says Irena Macri, author of the Eat Drink Paleo Cookbook and Happy Go Paleo, on her blog Food Fit for Life. “This plant-based food is a fabulous source of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Gram for gram, it fits the ‘superfood’ bill with a strong case. They’re a great seed for anyone on the Paleo Diet, the keto diet, or eating plant-based vegan or vegetarian diets,” she writes.
In addition, hemp seeds can serve as a great weight loss food, Macri says. “I love foods that are high in protein, healthy fats and fiber for weight loss. These foods are essential to the diet because they promote satiety, keep you full and keep you healthy. Starting the day off with hemp protein or seeds mixed into a smoothie, 3-4 tablespoons atop a bowl of yogurt, or in an energy ball is a great habit that can promote fat loss because it keeps appetite at bay.”
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., founder of the Paleo Diet movement, advises consuming hemp in moderation, and offered this advice on his website: “Hemp in any whole food form, like any seed, should only be consumed moderately on the Paleo Diet. If you like the taste of shelled hemp seeds, you can sprinkle them over a green salad or add them to your homemade Paleo trail mix in addition to other nuts for a quick energy snack.”
“As to whether hemp is Primal or not, I’d put it (like other seeds) in a supporting role. It’s not main Primal fare, but, when eaten in its healthiest (fresh) state, it can complement a good Primal eating plan,” says Mark Sisson, author of Mark’s Daily Apple, a leading Paleo Diet blog. Sisson points out that while hemp seeds contain a significant amount of omega-3 essentially fatty acids, it is primarily in the form of ALA rather than the preferred fatty acids EPA and DHA. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, Sisson asserts. “To hemp’s credit, the omega-6 content does include the healthier gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid, both of which are believed to be anti-inflammatory in nature,” he writes. Hemp seeds are unique in that they are the only edible seeds that contain GLA.
CBD, Paleo and the Endocannabinoid System
The big news about hemp today is the growing popularity of CBD, or cannabidiol, found primarily in the flowers of the hemp plant. A non-intoxicating compound, CBD is one of over 100 cannabinoid compounds that have been identified in cannabis. First discovered in 1940, CBD has been shown to have promising beneficial effects in helping with chronic pain, inflammation, neurological conditions, PTSD, sleep, anxiety and many other conditions. One review, published in the journal Neurotherapeutics, found that CBD also may be a promising treatment for people with opioid additions.
Interestingly, CBD may play a positive role in high-fat, low-carb diets, says Martin Lee of Project CBD in Alternet. Citing a study by Swiss scientist Jürg Gertsch, who researched the consequences of dietary changes brought on by agriculture, the human body’s endocannabinoid system – an ancient biological signaling network that evolved in humans and other mammals – regulates numerous physiological processes, including intestinal function, glucose metabolism and stress response. A dysregulated endocannabinoid system, in turn, is implicated in metabolic and bowel pathologies and other diseases.
Gertsch’s thesis, Lee says, is that chronic metabolic disorders are rooted in “a mismatch between ancient genes and high caloric diets” that ensued with the introduction of agriculture. “The multimillion year evolutionary process during which nearly all genetic change reflected the life circumstances of our ancestors [was] suddenly disturbed” when “carbohydrate farming” supplanted the “hunter-gatherer diet rich in animal food,” said Gertsch, who maintains that “the interplay between diet and the endocannabinoid system” is key to understanding today’s obesity and diabetes crisis and its potential remediation.
With the surge of interest in the health benefits of CBD, there’s been a huge increase in the number of products with CBD added to them, from tinctures and extracts to CBD infused snacks, beverages and body care products. Researchers have found that CBD is safe and definitely safer than many pharmaceutical medications, however, the FDA is currently studying the CBD market. It has mostly left ethical players alone, but the agency recently sent warning letters to a number of companies making outlandish health claims for their products.
Given its potential anti-inflammatory effects, CBD may complement a Paleo Diet, according to the blog Paleo Leap. “From a Paleo perspective, CBD oil also comes under scrutiny for fat quality – and that goes double for any kind of CBD candy, CBD cookies, CBD drinks, and other edibles,” the blog says. Other than that, studies suggest that CBD is compatible with a Paleo Diet and healthful lifestyle habits. One worry for “low-carbers” might be “will CBD give me the munchies?” However, the good news, Paleo Leap reports, is that researchers found that low doses of CBD didn’t cause sweet cravings or increase liking of sweet foods. “There’s definitely a role for a few carefully chosen supplements to complement a base diet of nutrient-dense whole foods,” the blog advises.
Fortunately for followers of the Paleo Diet, hemp has been consumed and used at least since Paleolithic times. Look for CBD products that are certified organic, produced without additives, and lab tested by a trusted third party in order to be Paleo friendly.
From Climate Change to Sustainability, Hemp Can Save the World
As discussed thus far, hemp has significant nutritional and therapeutic benefits for both human and animal health and wellness. This plant, this agricultural crop, also provides an impressive amount of environmental benefits, from carbon sequestration, phytoremediation and soil building to reduced water usage and less inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, needed during cultivation. The mindset of most hemp farmers today, and the environmental position the hemp industry publicly espouses, is assisting in the organic and regenerative agricultural renaissance necessary in bringing balance back to ecosystems around the planet. All of these attributes are positives in the fight against climate change.
The environmental benefits of hemp do not stop in the field, but continue when used as a feedstock for the processing and manufacturing of industrial ingredients and materials. It has been suggested for decades that hemp has the ability to replace most products made with fossil fuels and timber/wood, two industries that have a significant negative impact on the health of the planet. Biofuels, bioplastics, biocomposites, paints, varnishes and industrial cleaning agents can all be made from hemp and potentially displace product counterparts made by fossil fuels. Another reduction in fossil fuel reliance could come from hemp’s promising results as a supercapacitor material. Looking at hemp and its potential as a renewable resource that can be grown from the ground, annually and in mass, compared to the continued extraction of finite resources and the consequences that come with it, it seems reasonable to look at the possibilities of how to shift our focus away from a hydrocarbon to a carbohydrate or agro (new and renewable plant-based) economy.
The construction and building materials industry uses a significant amount of energy, fossil fuels, synthetic chemicals, and timber in ways that have measurable negative impacts on the environment. Hemp once again is a sustainable and renewable option that reduces impact, provides cleaner construction materials, from hempcrete, insulation, paneling, flooring, particle board, plaster and roofing. These alternate or “drop-in” materials are rising in popularity today.
When we look at timber and wood for various consumer and commercial productions, deforestation that comes with the depletion of these resources, and the complications compounded with disrupted ecosystems, we need to seriously explore better alternatives that leave a smaller carbon footprint.
Hemp has been a primary feedstock for paper since the latter’s invention nearly 2,000 years ago. It was only as recently as the end of the 1800’s and with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when new machinery began to be developed for other feedstocks such as jute, cotton and wood. The rise of Captains of Industry (or Robber Barons, depending on perspective), in timber, fossil fuels and synthetics took the mass production of paper and built out processing and milling operations setup specifically to produce high volumes of their materials with little to no foresight on environmental impact. Hemp was seen as less profitable compared to the materials in the industries they wanted to build.
Fast forward 100+ years and the paper and packaging industry are a leading contributor to dioxide into the environment. Dioxide is a compound found in chlorine, extremely hazardous, and one that has been necessary to process wood pulp by removing lignin to create commercial paper. Using hemp fiber as a feedstock for paper, packaging and various corrugated cardboard materials, hemp’s lower lignin content and higher cellulose content makes chlorine unnecessary and the use of hydrogen peroxide, a low impact alternative, viable in commercial paper milling.
What we’ve pointed to throughout this article is what we know today. The marketplace is excited about the possibilities of what can be done with hemp across the products spectrum now that the wall of prohibition is finally coming down after 80 years. Modern technology and innovation are moving into the hemp sector over the next several years and should provide additional product, replacement ingredient and environmental opportunities to industries and consumers far and wide.
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