Like a bloodhound, Gira Balistreri is racing through the palatial Whole Foods Market in El Segundo, Calif., sniffing out some of her favorite foods.
A new employee at the 65,000-square-foot flagship store, she goes directly to several shelves of hemp shakes and snacks, then trots over to tidy rows of hemp butter and oil, then rushes down an aisle and snaps up a fresh package of hemp tortillas on her way to the hemp bars, hemp bread and hemp bagels.
"Hemp," she says excitedly, "is just an awesome seed."
Balistreri isn't alone in her devotion. In the past two years, sales of hemp food products in markets and grocery stores rose by more than 50 percent, propelling the unassuming seed to an $8.6 million industry, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.
Hemp foods began filtering into grocery stores about five years ago, after the 1998 legalization of industrial hemp farming in Canada. The United States prohibits commercial cultivation of industrial hemp, but allows the import of seeds, oil, flour and other byproducts to be manufactured into ready-to-eat foods.
The plant's shelled seed, or nut, can be added to baked goods and nutritional supplements and bars, sprinkled onto other foods such as salads and yogurt, or eaten alone as a snack. The seed can also be milled into flour, which can be used for baked goods, and pressed to make oil, which can be used in salad dressings, dips, spreads and sauces. (Because of its high unsaturated fat content, hemp oil must be refrigerated and is unsuitable for frying.)
There are hundreds of hemp foods available online and on supermarket shelves, says Robin Rogosin, a certified nutritionist and buyer for Whole Foods Market. Rogosin estimates that the chain's selection has tripled in the past year. Hemp milk, the newest addition, is flying off the shelves, she says.
"We're shipping truckloads - 60,000 liters of it so far," says Mike Fata, president and co-founder of Canada's Manitoba Harvest, which introduced Hemp Bliss milk in March.
Living Harvest, an Oregon-based hemp food manufacturer, is forecasting just under $5 million in sales this year - a three-fold increase from 2006, largely because of sales of its own hemp milk product, Hempmilk, company president Christina Volgyesi says.
Hemp appeals to consumers for several reasons. It can be used as an alternative to soy products such as soy milk, which some people can't tolerate. Some people find hemp foods tasty. (We'll get to that in a minute.) Others are attracted to hemp's nutritional value. This may be its strongest draw.
The runty little nut, which resembles a sesame seed, packs some stellar nutrients.
Two tablespoons of shelled hemp seeds contain 11 grams of protein, no cholesterol and, most important, about 2 grams of the very healthful unsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Hemp oil also contains a good ratio - about 3 to 1 - of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s, says Barry Swanson, a professor in the food science and human nutrition department at Washington State University.
"That is an exceptional ratio, as far as balance is concerned, between omega 6s and omega 3s," Swanson says.
Further, he says, hemp has other good constituents: "The gamma-linoleic acid - an omega-6 - and stearidonic acid - an omega-3 - in hemp are both things our body needs more of, that don't occur in very many food products."
In short, the hemp seed is one healthy nut, and these days you can get it in hemp waffles, hemp ale, hemp lattes and hempacinos. Hemp lovers see the seed as an emerging health food superstar, but Roger Clemens, associate director of regulatory science at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy, says some of the excitement may be overblown.
Although preliminary research suggests that the fatty acids in hemp may reduce risk of cardiovascular events similar to better-studied oils such as fish oil or olive oil, compelling evidence is not yet in, he says. And, he adds, the ALA omega-3 in hemp is not the same as the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, which have been shown to be heart-healthy.
ALA does convert into EPA or DHA in the body - but very inefficiently, at a rate of about 1 percent, Clemens says.
In addition, although hemp contains essential amino acids, the quality of the protein in hemp, though digestible, doesn't measure up to that of soy, he says.
One ingredient that hemp foods don't contain is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana, says Lawrence Kushi, an epidemiologist and researcher at Kaiser Permanente, Northern California.
Industrial hemp is a different strain from its bad-boy sibling in the Cannabis sativa family and contains no meaningful amounts of THC. "You're certainly not going to get high off it," Kushi says.
Despite assurances by manufacturers that hemp foods are THC-free, Clemens, who oversaw USC's drug screening program for five years, suggests college or professional athletes stay away from hemp foods.
"There is some suggestion in the medical literature that when the oils and the proteins in hemp are isolated, there could be some THC contamination," he says.
Gero Leson, an environmental scientist, food researcher and scientific adviser to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, disagrees.
"In the late 1990s, when hemp seeds were still imported from China," he says, "contaminated seeds and oil could contain up to 50 to 100 parts per million THC. Now, virtually all of the hemp foods sold in the U.S. are made from low-THC varieties and contain only minuscule amounts."
These levels are not detectable in a urine sample, he says.
Noting hemp's nutritional value, Jasper Blake thinks the unprepossessing nut has contributed to his success as a professional triathlete. He's been using hemp products for about six years - 2 to 4 tablespoons of hemp nuts and about a tablespoon of hemp oil on average daily, as well as occasional protein powder.
The 2006 Ironman Canada champion (who receives free hemp products from Living Harvest, but no compensation) estimates that he has been tested for THC about 10 times since adding hemp to his diet and has never tested positive for the drug.
Whether hemp fare sticks around or fades into obscurity may depend on something that trumps versatility and nutritional benefits. "People are very interested in nutritional food," says Living Harvest's Volgyesi, "but in the end it has to taste good. It's all about the taste."
Ah yes, the taste. Hemp nuts taste a little like sunflower seeds, slightly crunchy and delicately flavorful - addictive even, to some palates.
Ready-to-eat-foods made from the nuts are a mixed bag of flavors and textures - ranging from reasonably good to impressively awful - depending on the product and one's taste.
Someone accustomed to dense wheat-free bread and rice or soy milk may find hemp tortillas and hemp milk delicious.
For everyone else, here's a recommendation: Don't buy in bulk.
Janet Cromley writes for the Los Angeles Times.