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Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Fair and Balanced

Hemp may play a role in limiting fat intake

Hemp oil, extracted from the sterilized seeds of the commercial hemp plant, contains high concentrations of polyunsaturated fat.

By John Russo Jr./

VICUS.COM (4 Oct. 2000) -- During the 1960s, marijuana, which was popular as an alternative to alcohol during Prohibition, had a resurgence of use and interest in the United States. There were many reasons for this, including the younger generation's rebellion against the Vietnam War. 

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However, marijuana was (and remains) an illegal substance. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made "pot" illegal and levied a tax on its possession. This was a significant issue for pharmacy students during the heady drug days of the '60s.

We were admonished not to be caught smoking marijuana or to even be in the vicinity of a drug bust, as we would never get our pharmacist licenses if we had a police record for drug use or possession, we were told by professors at Rutgers University College of Pharmacy in New Brunswick, N.J.

The warning worked. I still have a Pavlovian-type response to move away from the "wicked weed" when I see it or catch its scent. So, as I walked through the exhibit hall on the first day of the Nutracon 2000 conference this past July in Las Vegas, I glanced at the booth presenting the nutritional value of hemp (botanical name Cannabis sativa) but refused to stop.

Surely this must be a mistake, or a joke. What possible nutritional role could hemp have?

By the second day, my curiosity got the best of me. I discovered that I, like many other Americans, was ignorant of the nutritional value of hemp, in particular its seeds.

Cannabis makes a comeback

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, European farmers successfully re-legalized hemp. In 1998, Canadian farmers followed and started to grow their own.

Today, approximately 30 countries allow farmers to grow industrial hemp for paper and textile production, among other uses. However, in the United States, worry over the risk that hemp farming may pose a threat to our youth continues to make it an illegal crop (Leson, et al., 1999).

An unsubstantiated risk

Concern that the reintroduction of hemp farming to the United States will aid in the production and use of marijuana is unsubstantiated. Commercial varieties of hemp are bred to contain very low levels of the main psychoactive ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Only varieties containing less than 0.3% THC in their flower portions can legally be farmed in Canada and Europe. By comparison, marijuana flowers contain between 3% and 29% THC. This makes getting "high" from smoking industrial hemp futile. (Note: Several studies have shown that THC is detectable in urine following ingestion of commercial hemp seed oil and other food products [Alt and Reinhardt, 1998; Costantino, et al., 1997; Struempler, et al., 1997]).

Nutritional value of hemp

The oil contained in the hemp seed, which can be used as a flavor enhancer in foods, is 75% to 80% polyunsaturated fatty acids (the "good" fats) and only 9% to 11% saturated fatty acids, according to Hemp Oil Canada, a Canadian food processing company.

Figure 1 presents a comparison of the fatty-acid spectrum of hemp oil vs. other edible oils. Hemp oil contains high concentrations of polyunsaturated fat in the form of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, which are precursors for omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, respectively. Both are also metabolized to hormone-like substances such as prostaglandins.

Hemp oil is one of the few oils that contains measurable levels of gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that is synthesized in healthy persons from linoleic acid. Supplementation with gamma-linolenic acid may be useful in treating atopic eczema, premenstrual syndrome, diabetic neuropathy and arthritis in patients in which this synthesis process is impaired (Leson, et al., 1999). (Note: Hemp seeds from which the oil is extracted are legal in the United States as long as they are sterilized to prevent germination.)

Hemp oil in perspective

Hemp oil may have a role as part of a dietary strategy to lower the risk of heart attacks because omega-3 fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory effects, may be antiatherogenic and may help to lower elevated serum triglyceride levels (O'Keefe and Harris, 2000; von Schacky, 2000; Ponte, et al., 1997). 

Other inflammatory conditions that may benefit from the essential fatty acid composition of omega-3 sources (such as hemp oil) include psoriasis, acne and osteoporosis (Heller, et al., 1998; Mayser, et al., 1998).

Many uses for industrial hemp
  •  Hemp is among the oldest industries, going back more than 10,000 years to the beginnings of pottery. The oldest relic of human industry is said to be a bit of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8,000 B.C.     
  • The bark of the hemp stalk contains bast fibers, which are among the earth's longest natural soft fibers; they are also rich in cellulose. Hemp stalk contains no THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana. Hemp fiber is longer, stronger, more absorbent and more insulative than cotton fiber.     
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hemp as a biomass fuel producer requires the least specialized growing and processing procedures of all hemp products. The hydrocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources, from fuel pellets to liquid fuels and gasoline. Development of biofuels could significantly reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power.     
  • Hemp produces more pulp per acre than timber on a sustainable basis and can be used for every quality of paper. Hemp paper manufacturing can reduce wastewater contamination. Hemp's low lignin (a complex polymer that is particularly difficult to biodegrade) content reduces the need for acids used in pulping, and its creamy color lends itself to environmentally friendly bleaching instead of harsh chlorine compounds. Less bleaching results in less dioxin and fewer chemical byproducts.     
  • Despite these positive aspects, textiles, paper and oil made of hemp are not likely at the present time to become commercially successful products in the United States. Aside from the legal issue, the limited information available suggests that industrial hemp fiber profitability is highly uncertain. Experience in Europe has not yet proven the economic viability. Unless the economic viability of industrial hemp production is evaluated by serious field trials and pilot-scale processing in the United States, hemp fabrics and paper uses will likely remain a very small niche market, which is satisfied by imports*. 

S Qaource: Hemp Industries Association 

*Source: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of AgricultureIndustrial Hemp in the United States: Status and Market Potential. 2000 Jan 19.

John Russo Jr. , Pharm.D, is senior vice president of medical communications at He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.


Alt A, Reinhardt G. Positive cannabis results in urine and blood samples after consumption of hemp food products. J Anal Toxicol. 1998 Jan-Feb; 22(1):80-1.

Costantino A, Schwartz RH, Kaplan P. Hemp oil ingestion causes positive urine tests for delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol carboxylic acid. J Anal Toxicol. 1997 Oct; 21(6):482-5.

Heller A, Koch T, Schmeck J, van Ackern K. Lipid mediators in inflammatory disorders. Drugs. 1998 Apr; 55(4):487-96.

Hemp Oil Canada:

Leson G, Pless P, Roulac JW. Hemp Foods and Oils for Health. Sebastopol (CA): Hemptech; 1999.

Mayser P, Mrowietz U, et al. Omega-3 fatty acid-based lipid infusion in patients with chronic plaque psoriasis: results of a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998 Apr; 38(4):539-47.

Nahas G, Sutin K, Bennett WM. Review of Marihuana and Medicine. N Engl J Med. 2000 Aug 17; 343(7):514-5.

O'Keefe Jr JH, Harris WS. From Inuit to implementation: omega-3 fatty acids come of age. Mayo Clin Proc. 2000 Jun; 75(6):607-14.

Ponte E, Cafagna D, Balbi M. Cardiovascular disease and omega-3 fatty acids. [Article in Italian]. Minerva Med. 1997 Sep; 88(9):343-53.

Schaffer Library of Drug Policy; The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937:

Struempler RE, Nelson G, Urry FM. A positive cannabinoids workplace drug test following the ingestion of commercially available hemp seed oil. J Anal Toxicol. 1997 Jul-Aug; 21(4):283-5.

von Schacky C. N-3 fatty acids and the prevention of coronary atherosclerosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan; 71(1 Suppl):224S-7S.