With a focus on food, education and the environment, Dr Madalina Neacsu at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, is researching the benefits of hemp with funding from the Scottish Government.
Hemp was formerly a traditional part of Scotland’s agricultural tradition.
“The pollen records from two sites in Fife, eastern Scotland, reveal that hemp cultivation was, during medieval and later historical times, an important component in the local farming economy,” write Kevin Edwards and Graeme Whittington.
After disappearing as an agricultural crop due to cheaper imports and eventual prohibition until 1993, the University of Aberdeen’s hemp initiative, in fellowship with the Scottish Hemp Association and Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, has now encouraged ten farmers to begin cultivating again.
With aims to be carbon neutral by 2045, the Scottish Government has been funding five-year research programmes to help meet its targets. One of the projects is Dr Neacsu’s hemp research at the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen.
The project falls under the SEFARI – Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes scheme, which aims to deliver publicly-funded research to find solutions that meet the Scottish Government National Outcomes and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
As hemp is becoming increasingly well known for its environmental and health benefits, the research is aiming to find market opportunities for Scottish grown hemp grain and fibre.
Hemp for food
Specialising in the development of functional foods, Dr Neacsu trained as a biochemical engineer and went on to do PhD in natural products chemistry. She wants to understand how plants could help people with their health, in particular, how plant-based food could help prevent or treat certain disorders.
Dr Neacsu commented: “After you develop a food or look at the plant, you give it to people to eat to understand the potential when it comes nutrition and health. Specifically, with hemp, a big part of the research I’m doing is looking at sustainable sources of macronutrients, mainly protein, in our diet.
“In Scotland, we do have very good quality meat, but the problem is too highly processed meats that we are eating. We were thinking of partially replacing some of the protein in our diet, especially the highly processed and not so healthy protein sources in our diet. But this has to be something sustainable, so, we looked at crops with the potential to grow in Scotland, and that’s how we came across hemp.
“Since then, we have been measuring to fully characterise hemp, looking at the macronutrients. We’ve seen that hemp is a rich source of protein – up to 40 per cent protein, and a rich source of dietary fibre – 20 to 30 per cent.
“It’s also a rich source of phytochemicals which are a part of the composition of the plant. This doesn’t really bring anything nutritionally, however, people know them as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Many of these phytochemicals have already proven to be beneficial for human health.”
For the project, Neacsu and her team produced a flour with hemp which was made into a bread and eaten by volunteers. The team then looked to see what happened to the human body after consuming the bread, measuring things such as blood plasma levels and how hungry people were after eating the bread.
“We gave people the same amount of protein from different sources. There were five plant-based sources and one animal-based source. What we have seen is that hemp was really beneficial when it comes to controlling hunger and that it beneficially modulates hormones, which are very important when it comes to regulation of sugar metabolism,” said Dr Neacsu.
Hemp for health and environment
Neacsu engaged with Scottish farmers to begin cultivating the crop for food – but also to understand if the plant can help mitigate climate change. The aim is to help farmers diversify their activities with actions that reduce the carbon footprint of their business and promote biodiversity.
“We give farmers knowledge on how hemp could be used to produce food products and to show the Scottish Government that using hemp is a way to tackle climate change,” said Dr Neacsu. “But, as we mainly produce it for food, we have to understand how efficient it is.”
For this, Dr Neacsu and her team are about to embark on a consumer study where they will be trying to understand how much hemp can impact climate change, as well as bring food products to Scotland to initiate new businesses. To inform this, the study will explore hemp as a food, looking at aspects such as its impact on the gut microbiome.
Dr Neacsu commented: “So, with farmers who are cultivating, we to look at what variety is best, which geographical region in Scotland, how this will affect the nutritional composition of the hemp, to understand how hemp as a food – whether we can develop a food which addresses hunger or address type two diabetes, for example, which will create more demand for the crop.
“We have to understand how fibre and protein is metabolised and can be utilised by the body as a good source of micronutrients.”
The team have begun a project with hemp food products business Good Hemp – which already has products such as hemp milk and cooking oil stocked in major retailers including Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s.
“Good Hemp is the major UK processor when it comes to hemp food,” said Dr Neacsu. “We are trying to look at how they could make their process more sustainable. We looked at all the by-products from hemp food production, how they can be reduced and we will try to design a zero-waste production.
“We want to see how we can use it maximise and reintroduce it as a nutrient towards circular nutrition, and deliver a zero-waste production line.”
Hemp for the Future
The research is also undertaking a ‘Hemp for the Future’ project, which is aiming to educate young people from aged 13 on the multiple utilities and benefits of the hemp plant.
With young people today being much more attuned to the devastation of climate change, Dr Neacsu says they are in a good position to learn about how hemp can fit into the picture.
“We believe hemp could be part of the solution when comes climate change,” said Dr Neacsu. “Hemp is also part of a solution to promote biodiversity in Scotland, and food and climate diversity.
“We believe that school children are the ones that should know more about what we do. I think there is an age that they need this education so that we can break the stigma of hemp because every time you speak about it – people think about illegal drugs – which is very bad.
“We have launched educational material and educational activities in Scotland. We will go in secondary schools to speak about hemp and tell people that it’s so much more than a drug. We summarise uses of hemp not just as a food, but how you can use hemp as paper, how you can reduce the deforestation, how you use this as a building material, how important is as a fuel or just a construction material.”
To engage young people in their education, the project is taking hemp flour into schools and cooking pancakes to emphasise how hemp is a healthy food, show the versatility of the crop and how it tastes.
“We hope – depending on how the activity goes – that we might be able to take this project nationwide. This generation are so much more aware than I was about climate change when I was in secondary school – I think they know so much more and they need the right information,” concluded Dr Neacsu.