Hemp milk? It's healthy and legal as hemp cereal

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Got milk?

   
Soy milk makers follow hemp's lead

Part of the health appeal of hemp milk is its naturally occurring omega fatty acids, as well as fiber. It's probably not a coincidence that soy milk makers are now offering soy milks with both.

Silk just came out with Silk Plus Fiber with five grams of fiber and Silk Plus Omega-3 DHA with the vegetarian omega 3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Odwalla's new "Soy Smart" line (in chai, vanilla and chocolate) also includes omega 3 DHA.

They're going to be so fortifying some Horizon Organic dairy milk, too.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

   

Oh, we got milk all right.

In addition to whole, two-percent and one-percent fat, skim and super skim, we now also can choose to have organic milk, hormone-free milk, lactose-free milk, soy milks in a rainbow of flavors, rice milk, even almond milk.

Add to the list of nondairy alternatives, with an emphasis on alternative, "hemp milk."

The "milk," which just began to be sold this year, is made from the "nuts" or seeds of the industrial hemp plant, which is illegal for U.S. farmers to grow.

That hasn't been allowed, except for an experimental stint in Hawaii, since the late 1950s. This though the seeds and fibers from the industrial plant contain only trace amounts of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is what makes the leaves and flowering tops of regular Cannabis sativa marijuana.

A growing number of makers of hemp milk -- they use seeds from Canada, where hemp grows legally -- tout the health benefits of other substances in the THC-free drink, which is selling legally and briskly across the country.

Cartons for Living Harvest Hempmilk (www.livingharvest.com), which you can find locally at East End Food Co-op and Whole Foods and other stores, brag about it as a "balanced source of omega-3 and -6" -- essential fatty acids -- as well as "naturally rich in essential nutrients" and quality protein.

Indeed, the nutrition facts breakdown for one cup (8 ounces) can make you feel as if you're hallucinating: 46 percent of your daily calcium and 43 percent of your phosphorus?

The beverage is fortified with other vitamins and minerals, including D2 (25 percent), B12 (25 percent) and riboflavin (31).

What it doesn't present is any allergic reactions for those who can't consume dairy, tree nuts or soy, and no cholesterol or cane sugar. The manufacturer says unlike soy protein, hemp protein doesn't contain high levels of enzyme inhibitors, phytates ("which can interfere with the proper assimilation of essential minerals") or oligosaccharides ("which cause flatulence and stomach distress").

Nor does it contain any THC, as the company guarantees that it contains "0.00 percent" THC.

Plus, it comes in chocolate.

It's also available in vanilla and plain, in boxes that don't need refrigeration before opening. That's the case with another brand, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Bliss (www.manitobaharvest.com), which is organic, and which also is available at food and health stores in this region.

A 32-ounce carton costs about $4.

Other edible hemp products you can buy include hemp oil, hemp protein powder and shelled hemp seeds, which can be found in everything from salad dressing to frozen dessert -- hemp "ice cream."

A Lancaster company makes hemp pretzels, or hempzels (www.hempzels.com).

But it's the milk that's moving more hemp into shopping carts.

"I think it's going to turn more people on to it," says Mark Perry, merchandising manager at the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze. He likes munching the seeds as a snack and ground into nut butter but acknowledges that those are stronger tastes.

"The hemp milk is selling like crazy," says Kara Holsopple, the co-op's member services coordinator. When the store started offering samples last month, about half of customers were tentative, but now, "People are buying it by the case."

One is the Co-op's point-of-sale coordinator, Erin Myers. As a vegan (someone who eats no animal products), she was interested in it as a source of omega fatty acids. As a woman, she liked its high iron and calcium content. But as a person who likes to make fruit shakes for breakfast, she loves the taste. "I compare it to the best soy milk I've had, and not as grainy -- smoother." She even steams it for hot coffee drinks.

Leslie Bonci tried chocolate hemp milk and likes it. The director of sports medicine nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center says she has several vegan patients who consume the milk and other hemp products as a source of protein. She likes it as a vegetable source of calcium and of omega fatty acids, too, now that many people getting more concerned about pollutants in fish. She says hemp "is a foodstuff that actually does work very, very well."

Maybe not always as well as it's hyped. Some of the marketing makes it sound like hemp will bring you eternal life and offers to be a skin-care model.

But with hemp milk, you can think of it as something with which to wet your Wheaties.

Or your Nature's Path Organic Hemp Plus Granola.

If you're someone who uses soy or rice milk on your cereal, hemp milk doesn't taste that different -- a bit thicker and creamier and nuttier. It doesn't make you loopy.

While the drug variety of the plant can be up to 20 percent THC, the food variety contains 1 percent or less, and the seeds lose more in the dehulling, according to industry sources.

The seeds, whole and ground into powder, are an extremely versatile ingredient that can be used in everything from biscotti to curried squash, as you can see in "The HempNut Cookbook" by Richard Rose and Brigitte Mars (Book Publishing Co., 2003, $16.95).

Hemp is sprouting in food and fitness magazines. A headline in May's Prevention calls it "the new health food darling."

But as good as it may seem, hemp does get some folks riled up. A few years ago, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tried to ban all hemp foods.

Others want to greatly expand their range and availability by legalizing industrial hemp growing in the United States. The Hemp Industries Association -- yes, it's based in California -- fought the DEA and won so far. It also works to remind people how our colonial forefathers grew hemp and how most other industrialized countries still do, and to dispel worries that consuming hemp, or wearing it as a skin product, can cause positive drug-test results (www.thehia.org).

The lobbying group Vote Hemp (www.votehemp.com) estimates that annual retail sales of hemp foods in the country are now in the range of $14 to $16 million -- and growing at a rate of 35 to 50 percent a year -- and sales of all hemp products are about $300 million.

Wanting to get in on some of that action, several states (but not Pennsylvania) have approved growing hemp. North Dakota even issued licenses, but farmers still are awaiting federal approval).

Last week, frustrated by not being able to work with the DEA, North Dakota's legislature changed its law to no longer require state-licensed industrial hemp farmers to seek DEA licenses (though that doesn't mean they wouldn't be subject to federal prosecution).

Meanwhile, in February, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007 was introduced by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and nine co-sponsors including Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

There's a lot of arguing to be done. Opponents say industrial hemp will lead to more high-potency hemp. Proponents say more industrial hemp, which grows wild anyway, actually will neutralize the strong stuff by cross-pollinating with it.

That's a lot more than they put on a carton of Living Harvest Hempmilk under the heading of "What's in a glass?"

Living Harvest President Christina Volgyesi says her Portland, Ore., company wants to broaden the awareness of hemp food in general, something she says hemp milk has done by moving it out of just the supplement aisle. "It's definitely going mainstream."


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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