One scoop or three, man?

Is it the latest health food elixir, or just a dippy hippie thing? Whatever, hemp is where it's at
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"If you're asking me if I'm getting high," says Vincent Owen, as he digs into his second pot of ice cream, "I'm not." Oblivious to the industrial hum of pasteurisers and homogenisers around him, the factory supervisor is concentrating on sampling the latest batch of strawberry-flavoured hemp ice. He may not be high, but he's showing all the signs of a textbook attack of the munchies.

"If you're asking me if I'm getting high," says Vincent Owen, as he digs into his second pot of ice cream, "I'm not." Oblivious to the industrial hum of pasteurisers and homogenisers around him, the factory supervisor is concentrating on sampling the latest batch of strawberry-flavoured hemp ice. He may not be high, but he's showing all the signs of a textbook attack of the munchies.

But Owen could eat his way through several tanks of the as-yet unfrozen product at the ice cream factory in Anglesey, and still wouldn't feel the slightest psychoactive benefit. The seed that is crushed and soaked to produce "hemp milk", and then made into the icy dairy-free dessert, has only the tiniest fraction of the drug ingredient of its crazy cousin, marijuana.

Instead, hemp is the sober, virtuous member of the family. So virtuous, in fact, that the humble hemp seed is being marketed as a near-perfect source of nutrition.

The resurrection of the hemp family name is already well underway in Britain. Farmers who grow hemp for fibre are eligible for EU subsidies, as the organic crop is sturdy enough not to require the use of pesticides, and the nutrients in its roots and leaves help replenish the soil. Where once only hippies could list the advantages of the ancient, neglected rope and paper plant, now the mainstream has followed. Hemp soaps and massage oils are in Body Shop vogue, and Giorgio Armani has woven entire suits from hemp fibre.

But the benefits of hemp as a food source are just being discovered. The ice "cream" is one of a range of new products from Motherhemp, the first UK company to be granted a licence from the Home Office to grow the crop for its seed. Based in East Sussex, with hemp fields in Cambridgeshire, it uses the ice cream factory in North Wales to produce its non-dairy vanilla, strawberry and mint chocolate chip ices, and also traditional and red pesto. Motherhemp also produces hemp pasta, hemp bread and a variety of hemp oils and hemp sauces.

The pesto contains 10 per cent crushed hemp seed mixed with cashew nuts instead of pine nuts, and sunflower oil plus the requisite basil and parmesan, although the vegan version based on sun-dried tomatoes is dairy-free. Similarly, the pasta is chiefly made from spelt, a type of wheat. But the cholesterol-free ice "cream" is over two thirds hemp "milk". And while some other ingredients - which include soya milk, sunflower oil, sugars (unrefined sugar cane and slow-burning dextrose syrup, rather than quick fix glucose) and a whole list of stabilisers - might make ice cream purists frown, they are all organic and the strawberry version contains 6 per cent fruit. Jake Yearsley, the product manager for Motherhemp, says humans have been using the seed for its healing properties for thousands of years.

"Greek physicians used it for digestive disorders, migraines, and skin problems," he explains. He believes the Greeks had the right idea, and claims that now hemp can be used to help alleviate symptoms of illnesses ranging from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, right down to depression, PMT and eczema. This, Yearsley says, is because hemp not only contains protein, minerals, and vitamins, but essential fatty acids as well.

Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, agrees. "The Omega 3 and Omega 6 variety of essential fats are absolutely vital for health. They protect from heart disease, they also help to balance hormones, and they're vital for the immune system and the brain. If you're not eating fish, or sunflower, sesame, or pumpkin seeds, you'll be deficient in essential fats. The amazing thing about hemp," Holford says, "is that it has both."

Very little research has been done on the beneficial properties of hemp in particular but it is just one of an increasing number of superfoods being sought after as near-magical elixirs of health. Blue-green algae, wheatgrass, royal jelly, gingko bilbao... they range from simple pond scum to something that sounds like a Japanese prostitute with a special licence to work in Spain.

The market for these foods is growing. Renée Elliot, whose health food shop, Planet Organic, has just opened a second location in London, says that her customers are always on the look-out for something out of the ordinary. "People are trying to eat less wheat and dairy foods and find alternatives."

But taste counts if hemp ice is to make the break on to the supermarket shelves, and so often health foods need to be approached with tastebud caution.

Motherhemp's vanilla-flavoured hemp ice has a thin, icy quality, more like Italian gelato than chalky dairy ice cream. Then there's an indiscernible aftertaste, which is pleasantly reminiscent of something... nutty? Grainy? Or... oh yeah... Amsterdam's finest hash cakes.

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