Like a bloodhound, Gira Balistreri is racing through the palatial Whole Foods Market in El Segundo, sniffing out some of her favorite foods.
A new employee at the 65,000-square-foot flagship store, she goes directly to several shelves of hemp shakes and snacks, then trots over to tidy rows of hemp butter and oil, then rushes down an aisle and snaps up a fresh package of hemp tortillas on her way to the hemp bars, hemp bread and hemp bagels.
"Hemp," she says excitedly, "is just an awesome seed."
Balistreri isn't alone in her devotion. In the last two years, sales of hemp food products in markets and grocery stores rose by more than 50%, propelling the unassuming seed to an $8.6-million industry, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.
Hemp foods began filtering into grocery stores about five years ago, after the 1998 legalization of industrial hemp farming in Canada. The U.S. currently prohibits commercial cultivation of industrial hemp, but allows the import of seeds, oil, flour and other byproducts to be manufactured into ready-to-eat foods in the U.S.
The plant's shelled seed, or nut, can be added to baked goods and nutritional supplements and bars, sprinkled onto other foods such as salads and yogurt, or eaten alone as a snack. The seed can also be milled into flour, which can be used for baked goods, and pressed to make oil, which can be used in salad dressings, dips, spreads and sauces. (Due to its high unsaturated fat content, hemp oil must be refrigerated and is unsuitable for frying.)
There are hundreds of hemp foods now available online and on supermarket shelves, says Robin Rogosin, a certified nutritionist and buyer for Whole Foods Market. Rogosin estimates that the chain's selection has tripled in the last year. Hemp milk, the newest addition, is flying off the shelves, she says.
"We're shipping truckloads -- 60,000 liters of it so far," confirms Mike Fata, president and co-founder of Canada's Manitoba Harvest, which introduced Hemp Bliss milk in March.
Living Harvest, an Oregon-based hemp food manufacturer, is forecasting just under $5 million in sales in 2007 -- a three-fold increase from 2006, largely due to sales of its own hemp milk product, Hempmilk, company President Christina Volgyesi says.
Hemp appeals to consumers for several reasons. It can be used as an alternative to soy products such as soy milk, which some people can't tolerate. Some people find hemp foods tasty. (We'll get to that in a minute.) Others are attracted to hemp's nutritional value. This may be its strongest draw.
The runty little nut, which resembles a sesame seed, does pack some stellar nutrients.
Two tablespoons of shelled hemp seeds contains 11 grams of protein, no cholesterol and, most important, about 2 grams of the very healthful unsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Hemp oil also contains a good ratio -- roughly 3 to 1 -- of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s, says Barry Swanson, a professor in the food science and human nutrition department at Washington State University.
"That is an exceptional ratio, as far as balance is concerned, between omega 6s and omega 3s," Swanson says.
Further, he says, hemp has other good constituents: "The gamma-linoleic acid [an omega-6] and stearidonic acid [an omega-3] in hemp are both things our body needs more of, that don't occur in very many food products."
In short, the hemp seed is one healthy nut, and these days you can get it in hemp waffles, hemp ale, hemp lattes and hempacinos. Hemp lovers see the seed as an emerging health food superstar, but Roger Clemens, associate director of regulatory science at USC School of Pharmacy, says some of the excitement may be overblown.
Although preliminary research suggests that the fatty acids in hemp may reduce risk of cardiovascular events similar to better-studied oils such as fish oil or olive oil, compelling evidence is not yet in, he says. And, he adds, the ALA omega-3 in hemp is not the same as the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, which have been shown to be heart-healthy.
ALA does convert into EPA or DHA in the body-- but very inefficiently, at a rate of about 1%, Clemens says.
In addition, although hemp contains essential amino acids, the quality of the protein in hemp, though digestible, doesn't measure up to that of soy, he says.
One ingredient that hemp foods don't contain is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana, says Lawrence Kushi, an epidemiologist and researcher at Kaiser Permanente, Northern California.
Industrial hemp is a different strain from its bad-boy sibling in the Cannabis sativa family and contains no meaningful amounts of THC. "You're certainly not going to get high off it," Kushi says.