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Flax, Chia, or Hemp? A Nutrition Showdown

We all know that eating flax, chia, and hemp seed is good for our health (even if we aren’t entirely sure why). In a nutshell – or should I say, a “seed” shell – flax, chia, and hemp all contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA for short); the parent fat of the omega 3 family. Susan Macfarlene here to discuss these important omega 3 sources.

Omega 3 is an essential fat because our body is unable to make it (although we can convert small amounts of ALA into DHA and EPA, the type of omega 3 found in algae and animals that eat algae). The heart healthy benefits of consuming omega 3 have been well-established, although most of these benefits have been attributed to EPA and DHA. In a recent review (1), ALA was found to have a modest benefit in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, and demonstrated the following health-promoting properties (1):

  • Reduced hardening of plaque
  • Lowered blood cholesterol
  • Promoted healthy artery walls
  • Prevented clots from forming
  • Prevented arrhythmia
  • Lowered inflammation

However, what research on ALA does not answer is what the best source is between the popular choices of chia, flax, and hemp seed.

One of the first crops domesticated by humans, flax has been commercially produced in the United States since 1753 and is used today for both its oil and seed (2). By weight, flax is 41% fat, 20% protein, and 28% fibre (containing both soluble and insoluble fibre), with a highly desirable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of approximately 0.3:1 (3). In addition to being a good source of vitamin E (3), flax seeds also contain calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of ground flaxseeds seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):

Nutr. Info 100 g 1 tbsp (7 g)
Calories 534 38
Protein (g) 18.3 1.3
Fat (g) 42.2 3.0
Omega 3 (g) 22.8 1.6
Omega 6 (g) 5.9 0.4
Carbs (g) 28.9 2.0
Fibre (g) 27.3 1.9
Sugar (g) 1.6 0.1
Calcium (%) 26 2
Copper (%) 136 9
Iron (%) 32 2
Magnesium (%) 126 9
Manganese (%) 138 10
Phosphorus (%) 92 6
Selenium (%) 46 3
Zinc (%) 54 4

Flax seeds are also rich in bioactive substances, most notably lignans, which exert health-promoting properties as a phytoestrogen and antioxidant (3). For example, lignans from flax seed have been shown to decrease biomarkers of breast cancer in premenopausal women (4), as well as supress the growth of tumours (5). Furthermore, the bioactive substances in flax may lower cholesterol (especially in post-menopausal women), reduce the risk of comorbidities associated with obesity, and mitigate inflammation (3).

Chia seeds are a relative of the mint family and were traditionally used in Central and South America as a medicinal and staple food (6). In North America, chia seeds gained popularity in the 1980s as “Chia Pets”; terracotta figurines that sprouted chia seeds to resemble an animal’s fur or hair. Nowadays, people are more likely to consume, rather than grow, chia seeds, thanks in part to their impressive nutritional profile.

By weight, chia seeds are 53% fat, 35% carbohydrate, and 12% protein (containing all nine essential amino acids) and are a good source of both insoluble and soluble fibre (6). In addition, chia seeds are high in antioxidants and contain the minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium. Unlike flax seeds, which in their whole form will pass through digestion unabsorbed, chia seeds can be digested and absorbed in their whole form (6). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):

Nutr. Info 100 g 1 tbsp (11 g)
Calories 486 53.5
Protein (g) 16.5 1.8
Fat (g) 30.7 3.4
Omega 3 (g) 17.8 2.0
Omega 6 (g) 5.8 0.6
Carbs (g) 42.1 4.6
Fibre (g) 34.4 3.8
Sugar (g) 0 0
Calcium (%) 63 7
Copper (%) 102 11
Iron (%) 43 5
Magnesium (%) 108 12
Manganese (%) 151 17
Phosphorus (%) 123 14
Selenium (%) 100 11
Zinc (%) 57 6

There is a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of chia seeds in the prevention and management of chronic diseases. Nonetheless, a few studies have suggested that chia seeds may help prolong satiety (7), reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and keep post-meal blood sugars stable (8).

Hemp seed has seen its fair share of controversy since it hails from the same plant as marijuana. Because of this, both Canada and the United States had regulations that limited, or outright banned, the growing of hemp seed, despite its very low content of THC (

0.2%), which is effectively removed by processing and cleaning (9,10). Thankfully, these bans have been lifted, allowing North Americans to reap the nutritional benefits of these hearty seeds.

By weight, hemp seeds are 20% to 25% protein, 20% to 30% carbohydrate, 25% to 35% fat, and 10% to 15% insoluble fiber (11). In addition, they are a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and manganese, and contain incredibly high levels of antioxidants (11). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):

Nutr. Info 100 g 1 tbsp (10 g)
Calories 553 55
Protein (g) 31.6 3.2
Fat (g) 48.8 4.9
Omega 3 (g) 8.7 0.9
Omega 6 (g) 28.7 2.9
Carbs (g) 8.7 0.9
Fibre (g) 4 0.4
Sugar (g) 1.5 0.2
Calcium (%) 7 1
Copper (%) 178 18
Iron (%) 44 4
Magnesium (%) 226 23
Manganese (%) 422 42
Phosphorus (%) 236 24
Selenium (%) 0 0
Zinc (%) 124 12

Hemp seeds are unique in that they contain stearidonic acid (SDA); an intermediary in the pathway that converts ALA into the longer-chain EPA and DHA (11). Because of the presence of SDA, it is possible that an increased amount of EPA and DHA could be made from hemp seeds (compared to other plant sources of omega 3), but this has yet to be proven through research.

Similar to flax and chia, the fatty acid profile of hemp seeds exerts a favourable effect on lipid profile and markers of cardiovascular health (11). Furthermore, hemp seeds and oil contain phytosterols, which are plant-derived compounds that resemble cholesterol but have an LDL-lowering effect (12, 13).

Which to Choose – Hemp, Flax, or Chia Seed?

What’s clear is that flax, hemp, and chia seeds are all an excellent choice and provide a good source of plant-derived ALA, along with an array of nutrients and antioxidants. Of the three, flax provides the highest source of ALA and most ideal ratio of omega 6 to 3. On the other hand, hemp is the highest in protein and provides an excellent source of zinc, while chia seeds are the highest in calcium and fibre. To me, there is no clear winner among the 3, which is why I recommend including all of them in your diet. Just keep in mind that because of the high antioxidant and polyunsaturated content of these fats, it’s best to store them in your fridge or freezer and be mindful of cooking practices that could introduce free-radicals, such as high-temperature cooking.

Flax, Chia, or Hemp. Find out why these sources of omega 3 are so important in your diets, especially for plant-based dieters.

alternative to hemp seeds

What’s good: “They’re kind of overlooked because people don’t know what to do with them,” says Kirkpatrick, “but they’re high in zinc, which helps immune health.” Per ounce, the seeds, which are also known as benne seeds, have 5g of protein, 4g of fiber and contain more than a third of the recommended copper (which we need for energy and collagen production) and manganese (which supports bone health). They’re also a good source of calcium, magnesium and iron.

The Truth About 6 “Superfood” Seeds

When it comes to nutrition-dense superfoods, seeds are having a bit of a moment. But do they deserve their health halo? “There is an obsession with healthy fats, protein and fiber—it’s like the trinity—and seeds have all three,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago, Illinois. Of course, shortly behind every health food trend are enterprising food companies quick to sell you packaged foods that contain them—making it tough to tell what’s truly good for you and what isn’t.

Here’s a quick primer on six seeds that will help you separate the hype from truth:

Chia

What’s good: Chia’s evolution from punch line to power food has finally earned the tiny seeds some respect. Packed with 10g of fiber and nearly 5g of protein per ounce (just under 3 tablespoons), the seeds — which come from a plant in the mint family — can absorb up to 10 times their weight in water, making for a fun addition to everything from puddings (think tapioca without all the sugar) to pancakes. Chefs at the Cleveland Clinic even add the seeds to meatballs for extra bulk and flavor, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at the Ohio hospital. Sold both in big bags and small, single-serve packets for mixing into smoothies, the seeds are also a good source of calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids and phosphorous.

What’s not: Assertions that this ancient seed can lower blood pressure and make you lose weight have not been proven. Chia doesn’t come cheap either: At $12.99 a pound at my local market, it costs more than twice as much as most other seeds.

Hemp

What’s good: Hemp is a variety of cannabis plant, but the only high these seeds will give you is a nutritional one. They’ve got more protein (about 10g per ounce) than any other seed we can think of, making them a great alternative to animal protein. “For adding protein to a smoothie, I am going to go for hemp seeds,” says Blatner. And because protein takes longer to digest than carbs, they may help you feel full longer. Bonus: Each ounce contains three-quarters of the daily recommended Vitamin E and nearly a third of the recommended zinc to help boost your immune system.

What’s not: Search on “cannabis cures cancer” and you’ll find a large and ardent contingent who believe that cannabis, particularly in its oil form, is a magic elixir. Not only is this claim not proven by scientific studies, but the cannabis oil promoted is not the same as the oil made from hemp seeds, which is commonly found in health stores.

Flax

What’s good: An ounce of these slightly nutty seeds contains nearly 8g of fiber along, 12g of fatty acids, and more than a quarter of your daily recommended magnesium, which helps boost energy. The fiber helps with digestion, and there’s also some evidence that flax seeds can lower high blood pressure and cholesterol. Available in either brown or golden varieties, both are equally nutritious.

What’s not: Unlike other seeds, just sprinkling a handful of these bad boys on your yogurt won’t yield their full benefits. As Blatner notes: “Flax seed is best in its ground form so we can get the nutrients out of its shell.” Due to flax seeds’ high oil content, you should refrigerate ground seeds (as well as flaxseed oil).

Pumpkin

What’s good: For a tasty snack you can enjoy a la carte, roasted pumpkin seeds – also known as pepitas – are the hands-down winner. But where pumpkin seeds really shine is in the kitchen: found in everything from pesto to pipian verde, they’re one of the most versatile seeds you can buy. The green seeds are high in fat (14g per ounce) and relatively low in fiber (2g), but make up for it with nearly 10g of protein and a slew of minerals, including half or more of the daily recommended doses of copper, magnesium, manganese and phosphorous. They’re also a close second to hemp when it comes to zinc. Pumpkin seed oil has also been shown to relieve symptoms caused by an enlarged prostate – a common condition for men over 50.

What’s not: Pepitas are so delicious that it’s tempting to eating too many. Kirkpatrick, RD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute recommends no more than a handful a day, which contains about 160 calories. If you’re worried about your salt intake, consider buying a mix of salted and unsalted pepitas, then mix them together – and enjoy!

Sesame

What’s good: “They’re kind of overlooked because people don’t know what to do with them,” says Kirkpatrick, “but they’re high in zinc, which helps immune health.” Per ounce, the seeds, which are also known as benne seeds, have 5g of protein, 4g of fiber and contain more than a third of the recommended copper (which we need for energy and collagen production) and manganese (which supports bone health). They’re also a good source of calcium, magnesium and iron.

What’s not: Although seed allergies are fairly rare overall, sesame seed allergies in particular are on the rise, with an estimated 0.2% of the population (about half of those who are allergic to cow’s milk) affected in areas where the seeds are available. Chances are you and your kids will be fine, but use caution when introducing the seeds to those who have never tried them.

Hemp seeds have long been prized as a high-quality source of plant-based protein and omega fatty acids. A single serving of hemp seeds, about two heaping tablespoons, provides 10 grams of protein and 10 grams of omegas. Hemp also packs in all nine essential amino acids, which we need to get through diet since our bodies don’t produce them naturally. Hemp seed oil, which is the oil derived from pressed hemp seeds, contains the most essential fatty acids of any nut or seed oil. Of the three main hemp products on the market—seeds, oil, and protein powder—hemp seeds will provide the broadest spectrum of nutritional benefits per serving.

Everything You Need to Know About How to Eat Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are considered one of the most valuable plant-based proteins out there. Here’s what you need to know about how to eat them.

As far as the nut and seed world goes, hemp seeds are like the straight-A student who’s also captain of the football team. A couple of spoonfuls of hemp seeds packs a serious amount of essential nutrients, they’re easy to eat and cook with, and they have a pleasantly nutty taste, like a cross between a sunflower seed and a pine nut. And no, they won’t get you remotely high. Here’s everything you need to know about how to buy and eat these little seeds.

So, Will Eating Hemp Get Me High?

Although hemp and marijuana are members of the same species, Cannabis sativa, they’re in effect completely different plants. There are about a dozen varieties of hemp plants that are grown for food, and all of them contain about 0.001 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. This means you can eat as much hemp as you want and you’ll never have to worry about getting high or failing a drug test. Although certain states have begun to legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp in the last couple of years, the hemp seeds you can find at your grocery or health food store were likely grown in Canada or China.

What You Need to Know

Hemp plants grow brown popcorn kernel-sized hard seeds. Inside these hard seeds lie soft, white or light green inner kernels that are packed with essential amino acids, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. You can’t really derive a lot of nutritional value from the unhulled seeds, so when you see a bag at the store labeled “hemp seeds,” what you’re actually buying is those soft inner kernels, also known as hemp hearts. Hemp hearts can be pressed to make hemp seed oil, leaving behind a byproduct that can be turned into hemp protein powder. You can find all of these hemp products at health food stores, or a well-stocked grocery store like Whole Foods.

How to Eat It

Eating shelled hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, is as simple as sprinkling a spoonful or two into smoothies or on top of cereal, salads, or yogurt, says Kelly Saunderson of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, the world’s largest hemp foods manufacturer. People with gluten sensitivity can use hemp seeds as a substitute for breadcrumbs to coat chicken or fish. Just like you can blend almonds and water to make almond milk, you can do the same with hemp seeds for hemp seed milk, which you can use as an alternative to dairy milk in drinks and recipes. And because of its nutty flavor, hemp seeds make a great substitute for people with nut allergies—you can dry-toast them over low heat to bring out even more of that nuttiness.

Hemp seed oil should be used as a finishing oil, rather than a cooking or frying oil, since the delicate omega fatty acids will break down during the cooking process, stripping the oil of its nutritional benefits. Instead, use it to make salad dressings, or drizzle over pasta, grilled veggies, or popcorn.

Sprinkle a spoonful of hemp seeds over anything you think could use a boost of protein. Flickr/infinebalance

Health Benefits

Hemp seeds have long been prized as a high-quality source of plant-based protein and omega fatty acids. A single serving of hemp seeds, about two heaping tablespoons, provides 10 grams of protein and 10 grams of omegas. Hemp also packs in all nine essential amino acids, which we need to get through diet since our bodies don’t produce them naturally. Hemp seed oil, which is the oil derived from pressed hemp seeds, contains the most essential fatty acids of any nut or seed oil. Of the three main hemp products on the market—seeds, oil, and protein powder—hemp seeds will provide the broadest spectrum of nutritional benefits per serving.

Buying Tips

Hemp is rich in omega fatty acids, which are prone to breaking down and spoiling. The one thing you want to look for when buying a bag of hemp seeds is a totally opaque package that doesn’t have a window for you to look at the actual seeds. A window means the contents of the bag are being exposed to light, which means it’s likelier those omegas will spoil quicker and go rancid. Also look for a “packaged on” or “best before” date on the bag and buy the newest product you can find. This will help prolong your hemp seeds’ freshness.

How to Store

Once open, put the package or its contents in an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze it to extend the shelf life. Once opened, you can expect a bag of hemp seeds to last for about a year in the refrigerator or freezer. If you keep a package in your pantry, however, that shelf life will be more like 3 to 4 months. If you give your bag of seeds a sniff and they smell rancid, toss them.

What’s good: “They’re kind of overlooked because people don’t know what to do with them,” says Kirkpatrick, “but they’re high in zinc, which helps immune ]]>