While a 23-year-old Paul Benhaim was backpacking through Asia in the early 1990s he was struck by an incongruity.
“They were literally living in dirt, a lot of these indigenous people, yet they were the happiest, healthiest people I’d ever met,” says Benhaim. “I decided to look deeper into why that was.”
One aspect of their lifestyles that stood out to him was that their diet was different.
“These people were consuming essential fatty acids, whereas around the rest of the world people were consuming processed foods, foods that had long shelf life, where you had to pretty much take out the essential fatty acids,” the Australian-based Londoner says.
He read a “tonne of books” including one by Dr Udo Erasmus about the importance of essential fats (EFAs).
“In that book there were two paragraphs on hemp saying hemp was the ideal source of essential fatty acids,” he recalls.
Curious about why there were only two paragraphs if hemp was supposedly “ideal”, Benhaim sought Erasmus out to ask him directly.
“I said, ‘does it have the perfect balance for human consumption that you’ve alluded to?’ He said ‘yes’ and I said ‘and it contains really high quality proteins so it seems to be one of the best plant-based foods that exist?’ And he said ‘yes’. So I said, ‘well why are you not promoting it then?’ He said ‘it’s because it comes from the cannabis family’. I said ‘does it contain any drug ingredients?’ He said ‘no’. He said ‘I have a reputation as a doctor and I want to keep that reputation’.”
Hemp, according to the UN Single Convention on Narcotics 1961 is “any part of Cannabis plant containing 0.3 per cent THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the intoxicating ingredient] or less”.
“You could smoke a field of the stuff and you’d get a headache – it’s not going to get you high,” Benhaim says.
Although many other countries around the world recognised hemp and marijuana (which typically contains about 30 per cent THC) as oranges and lemons, and despite a 2002 review by Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) which found that hemp is safe and suitable for human consumption, concerns remained among politicians that its availability may increase consumer acceptance of illicit Cannabis use.
So, it remained illegal as a food source in Australia until now. On Monday, November 13, hemp – a variety of plant from the Cannabis satvia family – will finally be legal and available to eat.
Lachie Stuart, founder of Green Path organics and the Australian Cannabis Industry Association, says the possibilities legalisation opens up are exciting.
“Hemp is the world’s most nutritionally complete food source. It contains enormous amounts of amino acids and EFAs that the body can’t produce on its own,” says Stuart, noting EFAs are important for developing brains and helping to prevent degeneration in brains.
“Scientists believe hemp’s nutrition is so complete that a person could live on hemp protein and water alone almost indefinitely because it contains everything the body needs to function properly.”
Kara Landau, gut health expert and founder of Travelling Dietitian, says the claims are not overblown.
“Hemp seeds truly are quite an exceptional food source that I am so pleased to see finally be legalised for consumption in Australia,” Landau says.
“Hemp seeds offer a plant based protein that does provide the full spectrum of essential amino acids that the body can not produce itself, and do offer a great profile of essential fatty acids.
“The beauty of the ratio of the essential fatty acids inside hemp seeds is that unlike many of the other seed and vegetable based oils which are far richer in pro-inflammatory omega 6s, it actually offers a great profile of omega 3, 6 and 9s, in the ratio that the body desires to support optimal functioning, whilst minimising inflammatory responses.”
She adds that the seeds can be enjoyed in both sweet and savoury dishes sprinkled over a salad or cereal, while the oil can be used in dressings or poured over hot meals (but not used to cook with as the EFAs make it unstable for heating).
Landau does however advise against existing off hemp and water alone.
“Irrespective of the nutritional profile of hemp seeds being fantastic, I would still recommend people think about their health in a holistic manner; and make sure they incorporate a variety of nutritious foods, such as those rich in prebiotic resistant starches and probiotics, to ensure their gut and overall health is supported,” she says.
After Benhaim’s meeting with Erasmus, he bought his first tonne of seeds from Hungary and created the Nine bar, which went on to become the best-selling health food bar in the UK.
Now that its use is legal, he anticipates hemp use in foods will become an equally big industry in Australia.
Last year, he revealed he is planning for a 400 per cent growth in the next 12 months.
Stuart is anticipating a similar trajectory, planning for 500 per cent growth over the next year.
“The possibilities of hemp are endless and the growth is limitless. We can grow the best hemp in the world, in Australia – it has a very important role in the future of sustainable food,” says Stuart, noting its uses go beyond food (as well as skincare and textiles which have been its common uses in Australia till now).
“We use the byproducts in renewable housing projects. We used the stalk of the hemp plant, which absorbs carbon 20 times faster than trees and it grows about 10 times faster than trees. It grows in about 120 days and we harvest the seed and mill the stalk which we put into hempcrete homes – it’s like a paper mache material… that becomes a load-bearing wall and it’s fire-proof, it’s sound-proof, it’s mould-proof and it’s sustainable. It continues to absorb carbon over it’s life cycle.
“You’ve got a product which has enormous health benefits, as well as a carbon net biofuel, a building material. The story of hemp is not just about its nutrition but its sustainability.”