Hemp. Once upon a time, the word conjured images of hippies wearing earthy beaded necklaces, slurping smoothies, and crunching on granola. (For some, maybe it still does.) However, more people are becoming aware of the thousands of uses for this stigmatized superfood: antioxidant-rich food and medicine made from its seeds, clothing, paper and fabric made from its fibers, even fuel made from its oil.
And yet, the U.S. remains the only developed country where hemp remains designated as a controlled substance simply because it is derived from the same plant (cannabis sativa) as marijuana. But while it is illegal to grow hemp in the States, it is legal to buy and sell it here.
Tara Miko discovered the many benefits of hemp after she lost her job and health insurance in a time of insomnia, stress, and indigestion. "The road to hemp was paved with a lot of obstacles," she says. "It was time to start over. That's when I began to look at food as not only a necessity, but a healing nourishment. I got back to back to basics and started eating food...real food. Enter hemp. I was just like the uneducated and misinformed majority and was unaware that hemp is the most nutritious balanced food source on earth. After a little research, I was hooked—no pun intended."
Two tablespoons of hemp contains 6 grams of fat (mostly the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acid kinds), 2 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of protein. It has the potential to reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure, helping prevent heart disease and stroke. It may also improve memory and reduce stress and anxiety.
Once Miko's eyes were open to the power of hemp, she decided to move from California to Austin and start her own company, Happy Hemp, to spread her seeds of knowledge to others.
"The journey through USDA, customs, borders, farms, and sourcing from Canada took some time and money," she remembers. But everything soon fell into place and she began to sell both raw and toasted hemp seeds at farmer's markets and online. Now, chefs are excitedly incorporating her hemp seeds onto their menu in a variety of innovative ways.
One example is Houston's Chef Monica Pope, who created a toasted hemp mousse tart with blackberry syrup and hemp seed brittle (above) for her latest venture, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. "I've realized the food I'm attracted to has so much nutritional value and awesome flavor and texture. And hemp falls right into line with my obsession," says Pope. "I love to see people's faces when they taste hemp seeds for the first time. They fall in love."
Chef Kyle McKinney, pastry chef at farm-to-table gastropub Barley Swine in Austin, was first introduced to hemp seeds by Tara Miko. "I loved the idea right off the bat," he says. "As soon as I saw them I thought 'pot' brownie—it just made sense." He's made several versions of his hemp-studded brownie, but this one is topped with peanut granola and banana ice cream. "Hemp seeds add a certain nuttiness and earthy quality the likes of quinoa and sesame," he describes. "They are as versatile for flavor as well as texture."
Chef Alma Thomas of Austin's El Alma also loves the texture Happy Hemp adds to her cardamom rice panna cotta with candied hemp and Texas peaches. The candied, toasted seeds contrast against the softness of the panna cotta and add an earthy element to the sweetness of summer peaches. "Happy Hemp is an unexpected textural ingredient," says Thomas. "It adds an element of wholesomeness and it tastes delicious."
Jeramie Wright of Wright Bros Dairy is always looking for new ingredients to add texture and crunch to his softserve, so the idea of hemp seeds immediately intrigued him. "I knew it would be a hit with the Austin market," he says, "but I wanted to push it a bit further by adding a smokiness to the dish. After trying liquid smoke and a few other items, we came to the conclusion that smoked paprika and vanilla danced together beautifully. Adding in the crunch and peanutty-taste of the toasted hemp seeds, I realized we had a unique sundae on our hands."
Happy Hemp recently joined forces with small-batch, Missouri-based Askinosie Chocolate to create a dark chocolate bar that snaps, crackles, and pops in the most health-conscious way you could imagine. "After searching for a "super food" complement to our chocolate, we found the perfect match in Happy Hemp's toasted hemp seeds," says Lawren Askinosie. "When these seeds—a source of essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and protein—meet our antioxidant-rich, preservative and gluten-free, vegan dark chocolate, it makes for an extremely healthy, tasty, and intriguing flavor experience unlike anything else."
What could be next on the horizon for Happy Hemp? "I am headed towards everything," says Miko. "I love living life out loud. Who knows what the future may hold? I sure did not foresee becoming a hemp dealer!"
About the Author: Veronica Meewes is an Austin-based freelance writer and food blogger who will travel for food but always comes back for breakfast tacos. Follow her on Twitter @wellfedlife and visit her blog.