Updated on August 16, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Hemp has a long-standing history throughout civilization, but its illegality in the United States and association with marijuana has led many to wonder what is hemp used for and why is it illegal?
What is Hemp?
As a renewable source for raw materials, hemp is incorporated into thousands of products from health foods and holistic body care to paper, textiles, and rope. In fact, hemp has been around for thousands of years—its earliest documented usage dating back to approximately 8,000 BC. So, what’s all the concern about how does hemp differ from marijuana that we consume medicinally and recreationally?
Today, we’re tackling hemp 101. Our in-depth guide should give you a better understanding of the versatility of this material, it’s rich history, environmental benefits and importance as a cash crop.
It’s a common misconception that hemp and marijuana are one in the same. While it’s true that they both come from the same cannabis family, they are genetically distinct. In addition to having a different chemical makeup, they are further distinguished by use and cultivation methods. To help you better understand the concept of hemp vs. marijuana, it’s important to first understand what cannabis means.
Cannabis (the plant family) is commonly used as an overarching term to describe both hemp and marijuana. This is the main reason why most people confuse the two plants. Hemp actually refers to the industrial, non-drug variant that is cultivated for its fiber, hurd and seeds. It contains all varieties of the Cannabis species that have negligible amounts of THC — the chemical the chemical component that gets you “high”. Let’s take a closer look at how these plants differ.
Contains a maximum THC content of 0.3%
Adaptable and grown in most climates
Used for a variety for products like nutrition and health supplements, textiles, rope and construction materials
Contains anywhere from 5 – 35% THC content
Grown in a carefully controlled environment
Used for recreational and medicinal purposes
What is Hemp Used For?
Hemp has many uses, but to understand its full potential it’s important to first look at the anatomy of a hemp plant. The most commonly used parts of the hemp plant can be broken down into two categories, seed and stalk.
Hemp seeds or “hemp nuts” are encased in an exterior husk called the “cake.” The hemp seed is one of the most important parts of the plant. Not only is this how the plant reproduces, but the seeds offer incredible nutrition and holistic benefits.
Nut—the soft interior of the seed
Cake—the exterior husk or casing
The nut is most commonly utilized for producing hempseed oil and hemp milk, which are used in a variety of skin care and food products. While at first glance the cake seems useless, it’s actually a highly valuable component used to create products like animal food, gluten-free flour and protein powder.
If you thought that hemp seeds had a wide variety of uses, you’ll be surprised by the hemp stalk. Similar to the seed, the stalk of the hemp plant is broken into two parts:
Bast fiber—the exterior of the stalk
Hurd—the woody core of the stalk
The bast fiber is what most people are probably familiar with as it’s used to create textiles, paper, rope and netting. The hurd is more commonly used as insulation, construction materials, animal bedding, and plaster.
Construction materials aren’t the only popular product derived from hemp stalk. When Henry Ford unveiled his plastic car in the 1940s, he gave the world a glimpse at the possibilities of hemp. The car’s tough panels were made from a recipe that called for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp and sisal. More recently, a man named Bruce Michael Dietzen was the mastermind behind what he called the “green machine,” a vehicle that used about 100 pounds of woven hemp to create the body. And with the exterior at least 10 times more dent-resistant than steel, the car wouldn’t need as much fixing after an accident.
Now that you understand the anatomy of the hemp plant, let’s take a look at the role hemp plays in nutrition.
Benefits of Hemp for Nutrition
Hemp has become a wildly popular supplement in health, nutrition and beauty markets. Often referred to as hemp hearts, hemp seeds are exceptionally nutritious. They have a mild, nutty flavor and are rich in healthy fats, protein and various minerals. Hemp oil, derived from hemp seeds, is a highly beneficial supplement used in a variety of skin care products.
Plant-based protein—Dietary protein can come from many different sources. However, for vegans and vegetarians, whey and other animal-based protein products aren’t an option. Hemp is a great source for plant-based protein. An average 30-gram serving of hemp protein powder contains around 120 calories and 15-20 grams of protein, depending on the brand.
Fights bad cholesterol levels and blood clots—Hemp seeds may help reduce your risk of heart disease. They contain high amounts of the amino acid arginine, which produces nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide is a gas molecule that helps your blood vessels dilate and relax, leading to lowered blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease. Some studies show that hemp seeds may limit the absorption of dietary cholesterol, which could slightly lower overall cholesterol levels.
Offers all 10 essential amino acids—There are eight amino acids the human body cannot make and two more the body cannot make in sufficient quantity. Hemp offers all 10 essential amino acids in its seed. It also has a similar amino acid profile to soy protein and egg white protein and is therefore considered a high-quality protein.
Rich in gamma-linolenic acid—This property has been linked to reduced inflammation, which may decrease your risk of certain diseases.
Fiber—Hemp seeds can help aid digestion through fiber, which is essential for your body’s digestive system. Hemp seeds are a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber contain roughly 17 grams per serving.
Vitamins and Minerals
A naturally balanced ratio of essential fatty acids—Hemp seeds contain over 30 percent fat. They are exceptionally rich in two essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
Hemp seeds—Are a rich source of vitamin E and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc.
Moderates oil production—Hemp oil is good for many skin types, including acne-prone skin because it can help moisturize without clogging your pores. It can also be used to help regulate oil production while providing optimal hydration.
Moisturizes and soothes inflammation—The powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids and GLA, found in hemp, help soothe skin while encouraging new skin growth and cell regeneration.
Holds anti-aging properties—In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties and help with cell regeneration, hempseed oil is known to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Environmental Uses for Hemp
Hemp is a sustainable wonder crop that is sweeping the nation, but the uses for hemp go far beyond nutrition and health. In fact, it’s an incredibly sustainable crop with some unique environmentally-friendly characteristics that don’t go unnoticed.
Hemp is a farmer’s best friend. Unlike its cousin, marijuana, hemp is a hearty plant that grows in a variety of environments and soils. Additionally, it is less susceptible to disease and pests. It grows tightly spaced and has a fast grow rate, which leads to high yields. And because of hemp’s ability to restore soil fertility, farmers can grow food crops immediately after a hemp harvest without a fallow period.
Since the term “cotton is king” was coined in 1858, cotton reaped the benefits of being the world’s primary fabric, but much evidence suggests that cotton shouldn’t be the fabric of our daily lives. Hemp has been used to produce durable textiles for thousands of years, but its durability and efficient production aren’t the only reasons we should reconsider cotton consumption.
Cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop that puts a strain on freshwater sources. It can take more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce two pounds of cotton—the equivalent of a single t-shirt and pair of jeans. Hemp uses far less water than cotton, with an estimated 2,600 gallons of water to producing a little over two pounds of hemp matter.
Industrial hemp has the ability to clean contaminants found in soil through a process known as phytoremediation. The term “phytoremediation” was coined in the 1990s by the scientist Ilya Raskin, a member of a team that tested hemp’s ability to accumulate heavy metals from the soil in contaminated fields near Chernobyl. Similar and more recent tests have been conducted in the western United States in an effort to clean up high levels of selenium found in soil.
Almost any type of plant or organic material can be converted to fuel, and the advantages these alternative sources have over fossil fuels are huge. As a crop, hemp exhibits good resistance to pests and has a much lower water requirement when compared to other crops making it a great option for producing biomass fuels.
Because hemp farming has the ability to reduce our dependence on carbon producing, non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, lumber and plastic, it’s great for air quality. In fact, for every ton of hemp that is produced, 1.63 tons of carbon are removed from the air. Much like other plants, hemp is especially helpful for absorbing CO2 through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative.
The History of Hemp
While hemp has deep roots in world history, its story in the United States is far more complicated. What used to be a primary crop and textile resource in the early 1700s was quickly prohibited because of its relationship to marijuana and the mind-altering effects feared by the general public. This timeline highlights some of the most important dates through hemp history in the United States, especially as we see hemp turn a new leaf with policy reforms and the need for more research.
1700’s: The first U.S. hemp plantings in took place in Jamestown, Virginia — growing hemp became mandatory
1776: The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper
1900’s: Hemp-derived cellulose was promoted as an affordable and renewable material for plastics
1937: The “Marihuana Tax Act” passed
1942: U.S. government runs the “Hemp for Victory” campaign to promote hemp production for war supplies
1958: The last crop was grown in Wisconsin
1970: The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) formally prohibited cultivation
1999: Hawaii grows the first industrial hemp crop since the passage of the CSA
2000: The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) adopted a hemp policy that urged the DEA and USDA to recognize the distinction between hemp and marijuana
2002: Hemp bills were introduced in seven states
2014: U.S. President Barack Obama signs the Federal Farm Bill with hemp amendment, allowing states with hemp legislation in place to grow hemp for research purposes
2018: Hawaii issues the first licenses for industrial hemp research and cultivation
As a result of this long-term prohibition, most people have forgotten the industrial uses and benefits of hemp. Next time someone asks you what is hemp used for or how it differs from marijuana, you can point them in the direction of this resource and others in this guide.
Much like anything else, education is the cornerstone to changing attitudes and reshaping the image of hemp. From purchasing hempseed beauty products to CBD oil at your local dispensary, hemp is an amazing plant and should be recognized as such.