Hemp seeds.
Hemp seeds.
Image: 123RF / handmadepictures

Cannabis is definitely having its day. And not just for smokers. Hemp seeds, which have been eaten for just about forever, are increasingly on the radar. The seeds, which come from the cannabis sativa varietal, don’t contain THC (which is either good or bad news, depending on your stance). The sativa varietal has only trace levels of THC anyway, even in the leaves, and is grown for food, fabric, and a host of other purposes. Hemp as food has gained a devoted swathe of new followers recently, with every second health-focused instagrammer adding the seeds to their buddha bowls and power smoothies.

I’d like to completely hate the seeds just on that basis, as part of my knee-jerk reaction to the whole Delicously Ella side of food on social media, but actually they’re hard to dislike. Whereas chia seeds were always the very dodgiest of ingredients, without anything taste- or texture-wise to redeem them gastronomically, hemp seeds have a pleasant crunchiness, a mild nutty flavour, and are all-round really not terrible.

Hemp may seem hippie-level green by default, but if it’s farmed according to current conventional methods, then it’s anything but

To be accurate, I’m talking hemp-seed hearts, as they’re called, which is the hulled version of the seeds. Unhulled, the nubbins are much harder going. With the hulled version, you don’t have to do much beyond some quick, non-compulsory toasting, to make them a very convenient addition to a host of dishes. No wonder those instagrammers are throwing them around with such zeal. I’ve tried them in a tabbouleh, used them in place of nuts in a pesto, and added them into a pancake batter. All good. But as usual, let’s be cautious about too much religious-level fervour around any single ingredient.

For a start, like most seeds, they aren’t cheap. So, while their protein levels may be higher than most other plant-based proteins (and their omega 3 not too shoddy), in “health” shops they usually sell at a much higher price per kilo than most good grass-fed beef cuts. Hardly the answer for everyone. And their nutritional value is trumpeted far too loudly by many proponents (yes, that’s right, we’re talking those suspicious terms “superfood” and “nutritional powerhouse”). Claims that hemp seeds are “the most nutritionally complete food source in the world” should be heartily laughed at.

What hemp does have going for it, is that it’s an easy plant to grow organically; though that doesn’t mean, of course, that it always is. If you’re buying hemp seeds at all, try locating some that aren’t playing a part in the fossil-fuel-farming story. Hemp may seem hippie-level green by default, but if it’s farmed according to current conventional methods, then it’s anything but. For a source of info on hemp that is balanced, well researched, and just plain fascinating, spend some time at the Ministry of Hemp, where you can read up on everything from cannabidiol coffee in Portland to the building of hempcrete homes. You can also follow Ministry of Hemp on Twitter. They’re (almost) turning me into a devotee.

- Burgener is owner and chef at The Leopard at 44 Stanley Avenue, Joburg

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