The Cannabis sativa plant has a long history with humans. Hemp, one of the oldest cultivated crops, was first grown thousands of years ago in Asia as a sustainable, nutritious food source. Numerous ancient civilizations wove the strong and durable hemp fibers into clothing, rope, and pottery.1

Hemp even helped Christopher Columbus discover the "New World." The sails and ropes of his three ships were made of hemp, and the cracks between the planks were filled with hemp to help make the ships more watertight.2

Two cultivars with very different uses

Humans eventually discovered that the flowering tops of hemp plants had psychoactive properties. Over time, farmers began cultivating hemp to enhance this particular property. Today, while experts can debate the number of true Cannabis cultivars, there are really only two basic ones:

  • Hemp (Cannabis sativa). This form of hemp is cultivated primarily outside the United States (although the U.S. Government now allows it to be grown for research purposes) for use in clothing, paper, dietary supplements, cosmetics, foods, biofuels, and bioplastics.European hemp contains less than 0.3% of the psychoactive compound – tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC – as measured in the dried flowering tops.3
  • Marijuana (Cannabis sativa).  The Cannabis sativa cultivar cultivated to maximize its THC content, primarily in the United States, and used exclusively for recreational and medicinal purposes.

Hemp: It does the body good

Hemp foods are primarily processed from the plant's seeds and are increasingly common, especially in health food markets. Common hemp foods include hemp granola, roasted hemp seeds, hemp milk, and hemp seed butter. And, no, you won't fail a drug test when you consume a healthy hemp product.

European hemp thus offers many health benefits without the side effects and impairment associated with the THC content found in U.S. grown marijuana.

  • Pack on the protein. Hemp powder is a protein powerhouse. It's made by pressing the oil from the hemp seeds and then processing the remaining material into a powder. The resulting "complete protein" contains all nine essential amino acids, although compared with whey or animal protein, hemp powder is low in lysine and leucine. Bonus: Hemp powder contains healthy omega fatty acids and fiber.4
  • Not a seafood fan? Try hemp for essential fatty acids. Hemp seeds are rich in healthy fats, including omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids. Hemp is an especially good source of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is a precursor to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two fatty acids found in oily fish. Hemp also contains the omega-6 fatty acids linoleic acid and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).5
  • Get the health benefits of phytocannabinoids – legally. The stalk of the hemp plant contains natural compounds called phytocannabinoids. When consumed, these phytocannabinoids interact with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS) and can help diminish feelings of stress and relieve occasional aches, soreness, and discomfort. Phytocannabinoids also support brain, bone, and digestive health, and promote immune function and metabolic function.

The hemp plant contains more than 80 different phytocannabinoids that can help supplement the cannabinoids that your body makes naturally and support the ECS.6 Most people are familiar with THC, the phytocannabinoid in marijuana, which is psychoactive. Legally available hemp stalk extracts – imported from outside the United States – must contain less than 0.3% THC, which is not enough to give you that "high" feeling.7

Legal or illegal?

Since 1970 the cultivation of Cannabis sativa — both hemp and marijuana — has been illegal in the United States under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Even though some States have legalized marijuana and the federal Farm Bill of 2014 allows States to issue licenses for limited, experimental growth of hemp, federal law still prohibits the domestic cultivation, sale, and distribution of hemp.8

However, hemp products, including paper, rope, clothing, and bioplastics, have always been available in the United States. That's because federal law never banned the importation of products made from industrial hemp produced outside the United States — as long as the THC content of the imported hemp is less than or equal to 0.3%.8

Increased consumer interest in plant-based nutrition has led to a much larger availability of hemp-derived foods.  These products are made from non-U.S. sources, contain only a minimal amount of THC, and are perfectly legal.

Purchasing tips

  • When buying a hemp stalk extract product, look for a product that is made from imported industrial hemp. Buy from brands that manufacture to current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards and test products for purity and quality.
  • Purchase hemp foods from major brands and reputable sources. When possible, choose organic products, which are more likely to be free from pesticides.
  • For hemp oil products, find a source that is organic and cold processed. Keep the oil refrigerated to guard against rancidity.
  • For hemp protein, look for brands that list the amino acid content. Avoid additives you don't want, like too much sugar.


  1. [Accessed March 19, 2018]
  2. [Accessed March 19, 2018]
  3. Johnson R. Hemp as an agricultural commodity. Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Congressional Research Service, 2014.
  4. Callaway J. Hempseed as a nutritional resource: An overview. Euphytica 2004;140(1-2):65-72.
  5. Leizer C, Ribnicky D, Poulev A, et al. The composition of hemp seed oil and its potential as an important source of nutrition. J Nutraceut Func Med Foods 2002;2(4):35-53.
  6. Borgelt L, Franson K, Nussbaum A, Wang G. The pharmacologic and clinical effects of medical cannabis. Pharmacotherapy 2013;33(2):195-209.
  7. Cherney J, Small E. Industrial hemp in North America: production, politics and potential. Agronomy 2016;6(4):58.
  8. Mead A. The legal status of cannabis (marijuana) and cannabidiol (CBD) under U.S. law. Epilepsy Behav 2017;70(Pt B):149-153.