Hemp hearts, or raw shelled hemp seeds, have grown increasingly popular in the nutrition community over the past couple of years. But despite being labeled a superfood by some, they still have a stigma as part of the cannabis family. With all the recent news about hemp and marijuana, we’d like to shed some light on the benefits of pot’s nutritious cousin.

First of all, the hemp plant is legal to consume in the United States. Marijuana and industrial hemp are different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. Marijuana typically contains 3 to 15 percent of the psychoactive ingredient delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on a dry-weight basis, while industrial hemp contains less than 1 percent, according to the Agriculture Department. (Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, a large Canadian manufacturer, says hemp contains 0.001 percent THC and will not cause a psychoactive effect or a false drug test.) Though growing hemp is still banned in most U.S. states, we’re the world’s leading consumer of hemp foods, soaps, lotions and other products.

When it comes to the seed itself, the center, or the heart, is the most nutritious part. It’s an excellent source of vegan protein (containing all essential amino acids), dietary fiber and essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6). Plus, it provides antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Hemp hearts are credited with providing energy, stabilizing appetite and improving digestion.

Three tablespoons of hemp hearts contain 10 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber and only 3 grams of carbohydrates. This same serving offers loads of natural minerals and vitamins, including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamin and zinc, as well as calcium, Vitamin B6, folate and riboflavin.

In addition to being nutritional powerhouses, hemp hearts are naturally gluten-free and considered a raw food. They are free of common allergens such as soy and dairy. They’re not a nut, but they are a crunchy and portable option for those with nut allergies looking for a healthful snack with protein. Their taste is similar to that of sunflower seeds, and they can be added to cold or hot cereals, smoothies, yogurt, salads, wraps, desserts, stir-fries and baked goods. Or just eaten right out of the bag.

Recipe: No-Bake Hemp Brownie Bites

Combine hemp hearts with cacao powder, dates, walnuts, vanilla and a bit of salt, and you’ve got the perfect on-the-go snack. The cacao and dates satisfy a sweet tooth, and the protein from the hemp and walnuts will keep you full. Even better: This no-bake recipe is quick and easy to whip together. It is extremely heart-healthy and brimming with nutritional benefits, and not just from the hemp.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a quarter-cup of walnuts contains more than 90 percent of your essential omega-3 fatty acid, which has been shown to support hearth health, promote cognitive function and have anti-inflammatory benefits.

And for chocolate flavor without the added sugar, the recipe uses cacao powder, which boasts high amounts of antioxidants, magnesium, iron and Vitamin C. Cacao is the raw, unprocessed version of unsweetened cocoa powder. If its higher price or more limited availability is a problem, unsweetened cocoa powder can be substituted for the same flavor.

The brownie bites are naturally sweetened with dates, the only dried fruit that is naturally “dehydrated.” Dates are a good source of fiber, potassium and manganese.

These brownie bites are raw, vegan and gluten-free. They can be stored in your refrigerator or freezer for months. Simply grab them before running out the door in the morning. Their rich chocolaty and mild nutty flavor resembles that of a moist brownie — without any of the guilt.

Gordon, a master of public health professional and a master certified health education specialist, is creator of the healthful recipe site EatingbyElaine.com. Find her on Twitter at @EatingbyElaine.

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