From medical research to the legalization of recreational use, the Cannabis sativa plant has been making lots of headlines lately.

You will see advocates make plenty of sensationalized claims about its CBD and other derivatives. From allegedly curing cancer, to being able to replace fossil fuels, these rampant exaggerations and myths seemed to have influenced the nutritional realm, too.

Sure, the plant is healthy to eat in many ways, though it has several drawbacks you need to know.

What is hemp protein?

Hemp protein powder is made from the hulled seeds. It’s actually the leftover byproduct after the oil is extracted. What remains is a ground seed meal that’s low in fat and high in amino acids – up to 15g per 90 calorie serving (3 tbsp) for the highly refined versions.

THC is the mind altering chemical in marijuana and only trace amounts can be found in the food sources for sale, such as the protein powders and whole seeds.

bag of organic hemp seeds

The manufacturer Nutiva reports THC content of less than 10 parts per million (ppm) in their products. That’s why they are 100% legal to buy, sell, and eat in the United States. You won’t fail a drug test from eating them.

These foods didn’t become legal until the lawsuit Hemp Industries Association vs. DEA. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on that case in 2004, they set the precedent that hemp-based foods were exempt from the Controlled Substance Act, so long as their THC levels remained below a certain threshold. (1)

Even though you can readily buy hemp seeds and their protein isolates, currently U.S. farmers are not allowed to grow the crop, as doing so remains illegal on the federal level. That’s why Nutiva, Navitas Naturals, Manitoba Harvest, Bob’s Red Mill, Trader Joe’s, and all the other brands selling them are imported from Canada, where the cannabis plant is legal to grow for culinary and industrial purposes.

Health benefits of hemp protein

  • 15g of vegetarian and vegan protein per serving
  • Contains all 9 essential aminos and 11 non-essential
  • Only 90 calories
  • Low fat with 3g (5% of DV)
  • High fiber with 8g (32% of DV)
  • Rich in magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc
  • Just 1g of sugar
  • No saturated fat
  • Available hexane-free
  • All hemp sources are non-GMO
  • Gluten free
  • Low allergy risk

Those are based on the nutrition facts of the bestselling brand, Nutiva. The amounts for each will vary slightly by manufacturer but generally speaking, you will have these advantages with any pure source.

Amino acid profile

Is hemp protein a complete protein?

No and this is the Achilles’ heel of hemp. With 15g per 90 calories, it’s 67% protein. The drawback is that it’s very low in the essentials lysine and leucine, with the latter being a branched-chain amino acid that’s important for muscle growth. Bodybuilders and athletes may be better off choosing pea, rice, and other complete sources.

Soy is also a complete source but given its phytoestrogen content, even organic soy protein may be bad for you.

Here’s how protein hemp powder compares to other popular sources. Since the serving sizes and calorie counts vary slightly by brand, we recalculated the precise amount for each amino acid based on a 100 calorie. That way, this is an apples-to-apples comparison.

Protein Content Per 100 Calorie Serving
Type of Powder Hemp Pea Whey Brown Rice
Essential Amino Acids (grams)
Isoleucine (BCAA) 0.56 0.91 1.16 1.24
Leucine (BCAA) 0.89 1.67 1.94 1.93
Valine (BCAA) 0.78 0.99 1.09 1.28
Phenylalanine 0.56 1.10 0.65 0.93
Methionine 0.33 0.18 0.47 0.49
Lysine 0.44 1.50 1.61 1.09
Tryptophan 0.11 0.18 0.45 0.33
Threonine 0.78 0.78 1.31 1.01
Arginine (Semi-Essential) 2.67 1.70 0.45 1.45
Histidine 0.56 0.49 0.35 0.48
Non-Essential Amino Acids (g)
Alanine 0.56 0.81 0.94 1.04
Aspartic Acid 2.00 2.35 2.52 1.93
Cysteine 0.33 0.30 0.54 0.51
Glutamine + Glutamic Acid 3.11 3.57 3.45 3.66
Glycine 0.56 0.82 0.35 0.67
Proline 0.78 0.87 1.12 1.30
Serine 0.89 1.04 0.94 1.05
Tyrosine 0.44 0.75 0.57 0.87
Total Protein Per 100 Calories 16.67 20.00 19.15 21.25
Source (all products unflavored) Nutiva hemp powder Now Foods pea powder Jarrow Formulas whey isolate Sunwarrior Classic brown rice

Until seeing a side-by-side comparison with whey, most people don’t realize just how good of a source brown rice can be. It actually beats whey for 2 out of the 3 BCAAs (isoleucine and valine). Pea has less of the BCAAs but is still a great complete protein.

When you compare hemp protein vs. whey isolate, there are advantages. Being a plant-based source means dairy free, no estrogen coming from cows, it’s safe for people with a lactose intolerance, and it offers fiber. The bad news is that whey has a better amino acid profile. Hemp falls short for several essentials, particularly the BCAAs.

The only amino acid that hemp wins for is its arginine content. That is a semi-essential, meaning healthy adults are able to make sufficient amounts internally. Mainly it’s just babies born prematurely who require supplementation with it.

Other drawbacks

As if the lackluster profile of amino acids wasn’t disappointing enough, there are other reasons why hemp protein can actually be bad for you.

Poor digestibility

The low leucine and lysine content aren’t the only reason it’s an inferior choice. The World Health Organization recommends PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score) as “the preferred best” way to evaluate protein quality of a given food.

Using this scale, the protein of hemp measures between 0.5 and 0.6, with 1.0 being the best score possible.

Cow’s milk, eggs, casein, whey and even soy get a perfect 1.0 value. Pea clocks in at 0.89, sacha inchi is 0.87, while whole peas and legumes are around 0.7. With the exception of wheat and unprocessed whole grain rice, just about all other sources – both plant and animal-derived – beat hemp for digestible protein quality. (2) (3) (4)

High in antinutrients

It is true that hemp’s history as a food source dates back thousands of years. In the Chinese Book of Songs, from around 600 BC, it’s mentioned in lyrical poems. To read about this and other ancient uses: Sacred Bliss, a Spiritual History of Cannabis.

Though in modern history, its culinary use is relatively new.

The early Americans used it to make rope, textiles, paper, oil for burning, and other industrial purposes. For food, at least on a widespread scale, it’s something you have really only seen in the last decade or two. Your parents and grandparents weren’t snacking on it as a superfood!

While eating hemp can be healthy for you, large amounts may be dangerous and scientists are starting to realize that.

As reported in The American Journal of Plant Sciences, it contains high amounts of antinutrients like phytic acid, tannins, trypsin inhibitors, and saponins.

antinutrient levels in hempseed mealSaponins are what cause the side effects of quinoa, like stomach aches, when it’s not pre-rinsed (fortunately many brands do so for you). Tannins are why some strong green teas will give you a belly pain or the feeling of nausea.

The amount of antinutrients shown in the table above were said to even be too much for cattle, livestock, and other animal feed. (5):

“…the restricted limit of 20% of HSM [hemp seed meal] in animal diet allows lowering the concentration of antinutritionals and in particular of phytic acid. However, it is important to monitor phytate content in monogastric animal, since exposure of animals to high level of phytate over the long term could cause important nutritionally deficiencies, especially for iron and zinc.

They recommended keeping it below a 20% concentration in animal feed. Yet some humans are using 100% hemp powder for their post-workout protein shakes!

Too much fiber

How much hemp protein is too much?

For those with a slower or sensitive digestive tract, even one serving may be unhealthy. If the phytic acid and tannins don’t give you a stomach ache, the 8g of fiber can cause constipation in people with GI motility issues. Intestinal pseudo-obstruction and some types of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) actually do worse with fiber-rich diets.

young woman with nausea holding upset stomachThis goes counters to what many people assume… that fiber is good for you and helps you poop.

Yes it does, but only to a limit. Excess amounts can cause the opposite – constipation – by creating too much fecal bulk in the colon. Increased gas and bloating is another side effect. People with slower moving digestive tracts, such as seniors, are at higher risk. (6)

Since 8g is just one-third of the daily value, for the vast majority of the population this amount is healthy and will cause no issues. Though if you’re using a couple scoops for breakfast, followed by more later in the day, the cumulative amount may trigger side effects, even in healthy individuals.

Terrible taste

While flavor is subjective, with this food the opinion is almost universally agreed upon.

What does hemp protein taste like?

When eating the pure powder, the best description of its flavor is earthy. Like grass and dirt. The texture is gritty, not milky like whey or pea. Some people get a gag reflex when they try hemp protein for the first time. This is why most products disguise the unpleasant taste by mixing it with other flavors.

This holds true whether it’s a cheaper brand like Trader Joe’s, or a premium priced product like Nutiva or Manitoba Harvest. Any pure form will have a fairly awful flavor.

Underappreciated allergy

Tempt soy-free hemp tofuThe largest companies aren’t stupid enough to say such a thing, but a number of the small independent brands peddling hemp protein bars and other health foods containing it actually make claims that they’re “allergy-free” or that you can’t be allergic to this particular ingredient.

The brand Tempt hemp tofu actually says “allergen free” on the package. Such claims are inaccurate and misleading.

Can you be allergic to hemp protein powder?

Absolutely. In fact, if you do have an allergy to this plant, then it will probably be the worst form of it you could eat, since food allergies are reactions to specific proteins. Not to the 20 essential and non-essentials, but rather obscure non-dietary aminos which are unique to the offending food. Hemp milk and oil would likely trigger less severe reactions than the pure powdered protein.

All you have to do is look at our research on the hemp seed allergy and the stories left in comments by people. Symptoms ranging from mild to severe, like anaphylaxis that put someone in the ER, have been reported.

The good news is that this plant is gluten free, so at least that’s one common allergen you don’t need to worry about.

Goes bad fast

Look on that bag or canister of Nutiva and you will see it tells you to refrigerate after opening. They’re not kidding.

Hemp oxidizes and go rancid quickly after the vacuum seal is broken. Eating the expired protein won’t kill you, but it will contain higher amounts of oxidized fatty acids (oil). That means more unhealthy Advanced Glycation End Products. Increased risk of bacterial growth and a funny smell are more reasons why you should consume the powder within several weeks of opening. Refrigeration in an airtight container is recommended.

While all natural whole foods are plagued by these same problems to some degree, this one requires extra diligence and you never want to eat hemp past the expiration date.

Verdict

It’s not better than whey, pea, rice, or pretty much any other source when it comes to how much of each essential amino there is. Because it’s not a complete protein source, heavily relying on it post-workout would be bad for you. At least if you’re trying to bulk up or advance your fitness level.

What is hemp protein powder good for?

Some can’t use it at all, because the phytic acid, tannins, and other antinutrients cause stomach aches and side effects. If you don’t experience those, it remains a decent plant-based source, but given that it’s an incomplete protein, the best use of it will be as a blend with other sources.