Cotton crops produce fibers that people can wear, corn crops produce food that people can eat, and wood pulp can be turned into paper on which people can write, but hemp crops can do all of these things and do them better. It’s one of the reasons Popular Mechanics said hemp could be used “to produce more than 25,000 products” back in 1938, and with society finally starting to unlock its potential, the Land Journal hailed hemp as “the next super crop” in 2020.
As one of the world’s earliest cultivated crops, hemp is a nutrient-rich botanical whose seeds, stems, leaves, flowers and roots are used in diverse ways and provide different benefits that can improve daily life. Understanding each part of the plant is the key to maximizing the value that hemp offers.
Cold-pressed hemp seeds produce what the 1993 book Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill described as “nature’s most perfectly balanced oil,” delivering generous amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids like alpha-linolenic (omega-3) and gamma-linolenic (omega-6). For decades, hemp seed oil has been a major star in both the healthy fats movement and luxury beauty routines.
When it comes to promoting healthier, fresher-looking skin, the seed oil is king. A 2014 study concluded that hemp seed oil is an “excellent choice for nourishing the skin and protecting it from inflammation, oxidation and other causes of aging,” highlighting its potential as a treatment for skin issues like eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, varicose eczema, inflammatory skin conditions and acne. While many moisturizers clog the pores, hemp oil does not, and other skin-related studies suggest it can help increase moisture content, skin thickness, and collagen and elastic fibers; decrease dryness, redness, itchiness and irritation; and repair the outer layer of the skin. Epitomizing its immense value, eating hemp seeds might even promote healthier skin, per studies. In 2010, Beijing-based researchers summarized these benefits as the “anti-aging effect of hemp seed oil.”
In its seed form, hemp can produce vegan-friendly milk, oil, grains, breads and other food products that are naturally rich in essential fatty acids, soluble and insoluble fiber, antioxidants, vitamins (A, B, C, D and E, among others) and minerals like phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. By weight, hemp seeds provide about as much protein as beef and lamb.
Studies suggest they may help with symptoms of menopause, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), rheumatism, digestive issues and inflammation, and, per a 2014 study, “may have favorable nutritional implications and beneficial physiological effects on the prevention of coronary heart disease and cancer.” Food Chemistry published a study in 2018 that suggests seed oil can help protect the brain, while a 2002 study in the same journal suggested it had potential as a broad spectrum UV protectant sunscreen. In 2020, the Journal of Dietary Supplements published a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study that said participants consuming hemp oil “exhibited improvements in HDL cholesterol, tended to support psychometric measures of perceived sleep quantity and stress response [and] perceived life pleasure.”
To quote the century-old American Oil Chemists’ Society, “No other plants can provide such easily available food, oil, fiber, and even medicine.” However, quality matters. When it comes to hemp seed oil, the best of the best comes from cold-pressed seeds sourced from pesticide-free, non-GMO organic hemp grown in the United States. Quality seeds help maximize the beauty benefits when applied to the skin and simply taste better when eaten, with a flavor comparable to a mix of walnuts and sunflower seeds. Settle for nothing less because lower-quality seeds naturally produce lower-quality oils.
Beauty and nutrition are the star properties of seed oil, but the stalks are the most versatile part of the plant, producing everything from clothing and paper to plastics and fuel. Just as the individual parts of the hemp plant have different uses, the stalk features a woody core and a fibrous outer shell that also have different applications.
The bast fibers on the outer stalk are strong and durable and highly prized for their length, with primary fibers reaching up to 40 millimeters in length. Though hemp fabric was originally more coarse in texture, Chinese scientists in the 1980s discovered a way to remove lignin (a natural polymer) from the fibers without compromising its strength and durability. Today, the texture of quality hemp fabric is similar to cotton but significantly more absorbent, better insulating, less susceptible to shrinkage and highly resistant to pilling. It’s even anti-bacterial and provides sun protection by helping block UV-A and UV-B rays. The superior durability of the fabric means a hemp shirt can last twice or even three times as long as a shirt made of cotton.
What fashion brands have used hemp fabrics? Several emerging brands make hemp a central part of their identity, but major brands who’ve used hemp include Nike, Patagonia, Levi’s, Gucci, United by Blue, Vans, Rip Curl, BCBG, North Face, Loro Piana, Helmut Lang, Hari Mari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Eugenia Kim, Deus Ex Machina, Vince, Calvin Klein, J Brand, Ralph Lauren, Elie Tahari, Fisher +Baker, See by Chloe, Armani and Enza Costa, among many others.
The outer stalk also provides the preferred fibers for making hemp paper, which the Chinese likely introduced thousands of years ago, and the fiber’s durability makes it useful material for rope, nets, canvas and sails. Just as the Mayflower utilized hemp fibers in its journey across the Atlantic, America’s oldest Navy Ship — the USS Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides” — utilized more than 120,000 pounds of hemp for its voyages. The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are both on parchment, but several drafts were on hemp paper, as were early printings of the King James and Gutenberg Bibles. Hemp even played a role in protecting at least one recent president. As noted by the L.A. Times in 2014, “The hemp webbing in his parachute saved George H.W. Bush’s life in World War II.”
The shorter fibers in the inner stalk — often referred to as “hemp hurd” — are commonly used for animal bedding, but in recent years, they’ve found new use as the primary ingredient in hempcrete. With a name that implies hemp-basec concrete, this biocomposite material originated in France in the early ’90s and is now used internationally for construction and insulation. The New York Times describes hempcrete as flexible, airtight yet breathable, impervious to mold and pests, fireproof and free from toxins. To make the bricks, lime and water are added to the straw causing it to grow harder. The straw is then molded into sturdy yet light bricks that are easier to transport.
Château Maris, a vineyard in southern France, built its 9,000-square-foot complex primarily out of organic hemp straw bricks, which epitomizes the environmental value of hempcrete. The bricks capture carbon dioxide (CO2), reduce soil erosion, require no pesticides or fertilizers and naturally maintain temperature and humidity levels without the use of air conditioners or heaters. Thanks to the vineyard’s hemp-based cellar, Wine Spectator called Château Maris “one of the 5 most environmentally friendly wineries in the world.”
Hemp can also be made into environmentally friendly biodegradable plastic, which Green Entrepreneur called “the next big thing in green.” Hemp bicycles already exist, including Erba‘s bamboo-hemp hybrid, and researchers continue to develop plans for next-gen models. Automobile legend Henry Ford introduced a bioplastic car body made in part with hemp in 1941, and certain car companies keep this tradition alive by using the outer stalk to replace carbon fiber and fiberglass. A few companies even introduced cars made almost entirely from hemp, including Calgary-based Motive Industries’ Kestrel and the first hemp sports car, Renew (above), created by a former Dell executive. Speaking of the tech world, 3Dfuel uses the stalk to make 3D printing filament, while “hemp carbons make supercapacitors superfast,” with hemp-based carbon nanosheets outperforming standard supercapacitors by nearly 200 percent.
As an energy source, the fibrous hemp stalks can be converted into a biofuel, which researchers describe as “an excellent alternative candidate for biofuel production” with higher cellulose content than other agricultural residues. According to the U.C. Santa Barbara’s The Daily Nexus, “About six percent of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for [hemp] biomass could supply all current demands for oil and gas while maintaining a neutral carbon system.”
Hemp plants produce flowers that contain cannabinoids that bind to receptors in the brain and body. Only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are found in hemp, so consuming flower will not produce the euphoric effects typically associated with cannabis plants, but hemp plants do contain cannabidiol (CBD). Both THC and CBD are phytocannabinoids, or naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis/hemp plants, and CBD is widely considered the phytocannabioid with the most potential medicinal applications.
Frontiers in Endocrinology published a study in 2020 that highlighted this potential: “CBD is considered as a potential therapeutic agent due to its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, neuroprotective, and potential anti-obesity properties.” Other studies suggest CBD may help with pain, insomnia and even certain mental health disorders. In the U.S., the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes its antiepileptic effects, and extensive research is ongoing as to the validity of CBD’s other potential uses.
While some people consume CBD by smoking flower, it’s more commonly consumed as an extract. Chemists use processes like carbon dioxide extraction to pull the compound from the flowers, and the crystalline CBD is then typically added to an oil base that’s smoked, eaten or applied topically.
As a chemical that affects neurotransmitter activity in the body, CBD is taken orally to maximize its potential health and wellness benefits. A growing number of people, however, are now applying CBD creams to their skin to reduce pain and inflammation. Large-scale studies have yet to confirm these benefits, but anecdotal evidence suggests it might help improve conditions like sunburn, arthritic pain and immobility. Unlike seed oil, however, there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that CBD provides real value as a beauty product, with the possible exception of reducing redness and inflammation. Many beauty products simply add it to seed oil and use the CBD to justify a higher price point, yet it’s the seed oil that’s primarily responsible for the improvements in the skin.
To quote a VICE reporter who tried 40 different brands, “Some of these moisturizing CBD products have soothing emollients such as manuka honey, and cocoa and shea butter. We can’t really know if it’s the CBD in the product or the other stuff that’s making a difference until we have some more formal research on humans.” Or to put it more succinctly, In the Gloss ran the headline, “Turns out CBD beauty products might be a lie.”
Studies will eventually determine which benefits are real and which aren’t, but the quality of the CBD is another important factor in considering use. The combination of shady operators, a complex extraction process and the rush to jump on the CBD bandwagon make certain products less reliable.
In 2019, the Mayo Clinic warned, “Care must be taken when directing patients toward CBD products because there is little regulation, and studies have found inaccurate labeling of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol quantities.” Case in point, a 2018 study ran tests on 14 different CBD brands, and nine failed to deliver what the packaging promised. Worse still, the FDA found that some brands add dangerously high levels of lead, and it issued a mandatory recall of several CBD products in July 2020.
The only viable CBD products of any kind are formulated by pharmacists in FDA-registered facilities and feature batch-tested, third-party verified information on sourcing, extraction method, dosage levels and the hemp plants themselves (e.g., organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free). Furthermore, CBD is a compound, not an oil, so find out the type of oil it’s in and make sure it does not contain additives like parabens, colorants, phthalates or sodium laureth sulfate. As a largely unregulated product, CBD oils should be thoroughly researched to avoid a costly yet inferior and potentially harmful experience.
The roots have agricultural value in that they improve soil health and improve crop rotation, but this understudied part of the hemp plant may have medicial value. While low in THC and CBD, the roots do contain potentially beneficial terpenes like friedelin, epifriedelanol and pentacyclic triterpene ketones and alkaloids like piperidine and pyrrolidine.
Noted researcher Ethan Russo took part in a 2017 study on hemp roots that looked at traditional medicinal uses, which date back thousands of years. For example, first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder described a hemp root medicine in Natural Histories as a treatment for conditions like gout and joint stiffness. Other herbalists viewed the root as a natural treatment for inflammation, arthritis, skin burns, postpartum hemorrhage, gastrointestinal activity, infections, hard tumors, joint pain and even sexually transmitted disease. This led the researchers to marvel, “Despite a long history of therapeutic use, the roots of cannabis plants have been largely ignored in modern medical research and practice.”
The study argued in favor of the historical and ethnobotanical claims of clinical efficacy, specifically singling out its potential anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Future research will tell.
Hemp plants contain two types of leaves: the larger fan leaves and smaller sugar leaves. While not as nutritious as the seeds, hemp leaves are high in zinc, potassium, iron, magnesium, fiber, antioxidants and contain five times more protein than lettuce. The fan leaves can be used in salads, pressed into juices or soaked in hot water to make hemp tea.
In 2017, the Rachel Ray publication reported on the edible leaf trend, noting that “New York City chefs are tossing hemp leaves in salads and meat dishes for a refreshing flavor.” NYC restaurants cited in the magazine included Estela, ABC Kitchen, Norman and in salad mixes at select Whole Foods locations.
The smaller sugar leaves, which appear near the flowering buds on the plant, contain hair-like trichomes that can make the leaf blades appear covered in sugar. Like the flowers, these leaves contain cannabinoids and terpenes.
Hemp is an effective alternative material for making clothing, textiles, plastic, construction materials, fuel, superconductors and highly nutritious food, but using hemp instead of traditional materials can also be much, much better for the environment.
Hemp, the No. 1 producer of biomass per acre in the world, is a clean alternative energy source that can help end our global dependence on fossil fuels. Biofuel expert Lynn Osburn estimated that 1.5 to 3.5 million acres of hemp could replace all of Canada’s fossil fuel demands, and it can do so without making farmers choose between food and fuel. Unlike biodiesel fuels made from soybeans, olives and peanuts, farmers who grow hemp for its fibers can still use its natural oils for fuel, and after extracting the oil, the remaining seed cake is a source of nutrition that is second only to soya bean in protein content.
Because hemp grows faster than trees and contains more cellulose, estimates suggest a single acre of hemp produces as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees over a 20-year period, and the U.S.D.A. suggests hemp could replace 40 to 70 percent of all tree pulp used for paper production. The process of making hemp paper is also cleaner, significantly cheaper and produces a tree-saving product that is stronger and nearly three times as recyclable. As for making fabrics, an acre of hemp can produce 2 to 3 times as much fiber as an acre of cotton crops while using significantly less water and pesticides.
Hemp seed has 34 percent more oil content than any other seed, and its oil is second only to whale oils in its quality. In fact, hemp oil has the same burning qualities and viscosity as No. 2 grade heating oil (i.e., the cleanest and most expensive) without any of the sulphur-based pollutants.
“If someone is already growing hemp,” wrote UConn professor Richard Parnas, “they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from the seeds they produce.” In other words, the same hemp plant used to make paper, fabrics and food can also provide the fuel to power the entire process.
In its analysis of hemp, The Daily Nexus noted, “It is drought-resistant, making it an ideal crop in the dry western regions of the country. It can yield 10 tons per acre in four months, and because it grows at such a rapid pace, it chokes out other weeds on its own; it does this with little to no chemical fertilizer assistance. Incredibly, hemp seed improves the soil on which it is sown. Yield has also been known to increase readily with subsequent harvests, making it a remarkably efficient and cheap harvesting process when compared with other agriculture.”
In 2017, the Journal of the International Hemp Association highlighted studies that suggest hemp plants are natural pest repellents that “deter insects, nematodes, fungi and weedy plants” and repel mites, weeds, fungi, bacteria and protozoans. By simply utilizing hemp in crop rotation practices, the plant can improve the soil and help farmers more effectively grow other crops. By comparison, cotton plants grow on three percent of all crop-based land, but they receive 35 percent of the world’s insecticides and pesticides.
In 2005, the Stockholm Environment Institute’s “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester” found that producing polyester requires up to 10 times more energy output and emits significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) than cotton and hemp. Likewise, a kilogram of cotton requires 9,758 kilograms of water use, compared to as little as 2,401 kilograms for hemp. Cotton also requires significantly more land area for cultivation. In terms of their total ecological footprint, cotton represented “the higher end,” polyester the “middle ground” and hemp “the lowest… of the three textiles,” with the researchers declaring hemp “the overall best performer” for sustainability.
Hemp in History
Humans first domesticated hemp somewhere in Central Asia as much as 15,000 years ago. It’s not clear exactly where, but good evidence puts the early hemp heartland in a sweet spot currently occupied by Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China. Later, nomadic horse-riding Scythians helped spread hemp across the land. Seeds found in ancient Germany date back as far as 8,000 years, while hemp- and flax-based textile fragments found in Israel could be up to 7,000 years old. Systematic large-scale use of hemp, however, likely originated in China.
“The Chinese, in a certain sense, were probably the first culture to systematically raise domesticated [hemp] and harvest it,” says University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf, who studies the geographical history of cannabis plants. “That seems to be the earliest, by some accounts maybe 4,000 B.C.E. or so. There’s a Chinese deity, the hemp goddess, and there were medicinal texts in Chinese, written reports of emperors using it for headaches and royal women using it during childbirth. This is long before the Scythians carried it into Eastern Europe.”
The ancient Chinese viewed hemp as both a medicinal plant and a fiber-rich food. A well-preserved 2,100-year-old tomb discovered in the Hunan province contained hemp seeds. The Chinese also used hemp to make everyday items like paper and fabrics, which were found in the 1st-century B.C.E. tomb of Emperor Wu. Although ancient China is associated with fine silk, most residents could not afford the expensive fabric and wore durable and affordable hemp-based clothes instead. Hemp was also used to make bowstrings, giving Chinese archers more range and power than their enemies who fought with bamboo bowstrings.
In Egypt, archaeologists discovered a cord dating back to 1300s B.C.E. that might be hemp, while the Roman emperor Aurelian claims the clearest early reference when he implemented a tax on Egyptian hemp, linen, glass and paper in the 3rd century C.E. The first mention in Western literature may be a fifth century B.C.E. reference to hemp seeds by Greek historian Herodotus, while Roman physician Cladius Galen talked about making hemp cakes and serving roasted hemp seeds in the second century C.E.
In the age of European colonization, hemp was especially popular. Christopher Columbus brought hemp seeds to the New World, many of the Founding Fathers grew hemp and George Washington advised his gardener to sew hemp seed everywhere. At one point, Russia was one of the main producers supplying hemp throughout Europe.
“Hemp was in huge demand in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely for making sails and rope and things like that,” says Dr. Warf. There was even a very active hemp clothing industry throughout Europe and elsewhere. There were shortages of hemp, particularly in Western Europe. The Russian supply couldn’t keep up with the demand, which is why, in part, the colonial governments began to encourage hemp growing. The French encouraged it in what is now Southern Quebec. British colonialists encouraged hemp growing in the Eastern U.S. The Spanish crown encouraged it in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in the U.S. during World War II, there was a Hemp for Victory campaign.”
Epitomizing the public esteem for the plant, a famed 19th-century stud dog who became the progenitor of the prestigious Border Collie breed was named Old Hemp.
Hemp for the Future
In the United States, hemp production peaked in 1943 at 150 million pounds, and despite the widespread use of hemp in fighting the Nazis, federal regulations and declining demand led to a significant drop in production in the 1950s. Hemp’s comeback started in the 1990s around the time President Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1994 that listed hemp as an essential food resource that the government should stockpile. In 2018, an agricultural bill removed key restrictions on growing the plant, and the new age of hemp officially began.
Epitomizing the sky-high potential for the plant’s future, NASA sent a pound of hemp seeds into space in 2019. The seeds were left at the International Space Station where scientists are studying the plant’s biology in a low-gravity environment. Hemp experiments in space is the perfect example of how fast the future of hemp is unfolding.
Hemp is now well on its way to becoming a game-changer in health, wellness, nutrition, beauty, fashion, fuel and even construction. Cornell University, which recently held a Hemp Research Team Field Day, is starting a hemp seed bank to study its genetics and develop tools for breeding new varieties. A research engineer and professor at U.C. Riverside in California recently patented a new pulping method that converts nearly 100 percent of the hemp plant into usable components, including a hemp-based sugar substitute.
In fact, the 25,000 potential products suggested in 1938 now tops 50,000 potential products. This means the future of hemp is one that will positively impact the Earth itself and everyone who lives on it. And who knows, NASA might even discover it has benefits for outer space.