They Don’t Call Them Essential Fatty Acids for Nothin’

February 11, 2014

The year was 2003. Living a plant-centric lifestyle for more than twenty years and teaching healthy cooking and eating macrobiotically for more than fifteen years, I thought I had it all handled…nutrient-wise anyway. I ate well, lots of seasonal, organic vegetables, beans, tofu and tempeh, with a smattering of whole grains, pasta and breads to round out my diet. Not shy about fat, either, I cooked with olive oil…liberally.

So imagine my surprise when I realized that I suffered from a deficiency of the essential fatty acid, omega-3 or linoleic acid. With slow-healing cuts and scrapes as my main “symptom,” I sought answers and did research. I added hemp and chia seeds to my diet. The improvement I saw in my already good health was astonishing: better skin and stronger hair, a better ability to focus, more stamina, just to name a few.

So what’s up with essential fatty acids? Chia, we know. But what’s up with hemp? Well, let’s get the nonsense out of the way right at the beginning. Hemp is not a drug. A low-octane cousin of the plant that produces marijuana, industrial hemp is a great source of food and fiber, but a poor source of medicine. Simply one of the 10,000 varieties of the cannabis plant family, industrial hempseed is likely one of the most nutritious plant foods on earth.

At 31%, hemp contains more protein than beef, chicken, cheese or fish, being composed of albumin and edestin proteins, which are highly digestible and the type most like that found in the human body.

But as incredible a source of protein as hempseed is, it is even more important to us nutritionally as a source of essential fatty acids, in particular, omega-3. Called “essential” because the body cannot manufacture them, these fats must be obtained from our diet. Important for almost every biological process in the body, essential fatty acids are pretty much the only reason humans need to eat fat, making it important to choose appropriate fats for consumption.

Essential fats reduce the risk of heart disease and reduce blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. They aid in controlling cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and relieve arthritis, auto-immune disorders, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, depression inflammation, infection, slow metabolism, vision impairment, hair loss, organ degeneration, premenstrual syndrome skin and hair problems…whew!

Since essential fats aren’t found in meat or dairy products, many Americans are simply not getting enough of them to reap the many benefits they bring to the body and its function. People eating low-fat diets get virtually no essential fatty acids. Many people avoid eating healthy oils because they are looking for ways to lose weight and with other sources of fat, this logic is sound. However, most of the polyunsaturated essential fats go straight to work in metabolic functions and are not stored in the body as an energy source, contributing fewer calories to storage of fat in the body.

An unofficial recommended daily intake of essential fatty acids, for an adult, is 1.4-4.6 grams of omega-3 and 8-14 grams of omega-6, which is one part omega-3 to three parts omega-6, the optimal ratio for long-term maintenance of healthy human tissue. At 80% essential fats, the oil found in hempseed is one of the richest sources of polyunsaturated fats, containing 20% omega-3 (linoleic acid) and 60% omega-6 (linoleic acid), making it balanced for human tissue and unique among plant oils in this respect. And unlike other polyunsaturated oils, research shows that hempseed oil appears to be far more resistant to heat than others, before it becomes a trans-fat. Since shelled hempseed is about 47% oil, they too are rich sources of essential fats. Seems like there is only good news.

So is hempseed the only source of essential fats? As someone who eats plant-centric, the options are limited, but along with hemp I love, love, love chia seeds…yes, the same ancient powerhouse seeds that became something of a joke with the advent of chia pets in the 1970’s. It turns out that chia seeds give us EFA’s, protein, iron and countless minerals and vitamins.

Omega-6 is abundantly found in our diets, with rich sources including most vegetable and seed oils, organic corn, olive and walnut oils, borage, black currant and evening primrose oil, as well as in many vegetables, grains and beans. Harder to find omega-3 oils are also found in small amounts in walnut, canola and avocado oil, soybeans and the ever-popular flax seeds and oil.

Coldwater fish, like salmon and tuna are rich sources of omega-3 as well. For vegans, fish is not an option, but something else needs to be examined here. The controversy over fish continues to grow as our waters grow more polluted. Any toxins from the water will lodge themselves in their most concentrated forms in, yep, you guessed it, the fat of the fish. In 5 years I predict almost all our fish will be factory farmed, with likely a drop in the omega-3 content that the deep cold ocean water creates in them. So is fish the best choice? Not in my view.

Of course, fish capsules are also a solution to the dilemma of getting enough omega-3 fats, but quality, rancidity and ability to digest them can be issues. So if you choose this option, really research the quality before you buy.

So while other sources of essential fats exist, for me, shelled chia and hemp seeds are the best. And easy to work with? Just check out these recipes.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Apricots and Curried Hemp Seeds
A yummy sweet side dish, luscious, warming to the body, satisfying and oh, so rich. And with the addition of lightly toasted hemp seeds, we add essential fatty acids in a most delicious way.

Makes 4-5 servings

3-4 garnet or jewel sweet potatoes, large chunks
6-8 dried apricots, halved
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
grated zest of 1/2 fresh lemon
1 teaspoon curry powder
_ cup shelled hempseeds
2-3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely minced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange sweet potatoes and apricots in a large baking dish, avoiding overlap. Drizzle generously with oil; sprinkle with salt and lemon zest. Cover tightly and bake for 45 minutes. Remove cover and return to oven until the sweet potatoes are lightly browned, 7-10 minutes.

While the potatoes roast, heat curry powder in a dry skillet over medium heat. Dry roast the curry for 1-2 minutes. Reduce heat to low and stir in hempseeds, toasting, stirring constantly, until the curry turns from orange to a vivid yellow; it will return to a lovely orange color as it cools. (Transfer to a glass jar and cool completely before sealing. Condiment will last, in a sealed jar, for 1-2 weeks.) To serve, sprinkle cooked sweet potatoes with curried hempseeds and fresh parsley.

Winter Salad with Chia Seed Vinaigrette
Anise-scented fennel joins forces with nutty hemp seeds to create a powerfully yummy winter salad, but that’s not the best part. Sure, vegetables are jam-packed with nutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals, but by adding hemp seeds, you get the added punch of essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega 6. The perfect salad, I’d say.

Makes 6-8 servings

2 fennel bulbs
1 large head Romaine lettuce, rinsed well, hand-shredded
2 heads frisee (curly endive), rinsed well, hand-shredded
4-5 Belgian endives, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced lengthwise
5-6 red radishes, thinly sliced
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely minced

chia seed vinaigrette:
1/3 cup chia seeds
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, minced
1/4 cup brown rice vinegar
2 tablespoons stoneground mustard
sea salt

Trim fennel stalks flush with the bulbs and discard the stalks, reserving about 3 tablespoons of the leaves. Halve fennel bulbs, remove the cores and slice each half very thinly. Combine with balance of vegetables in a mixing bowl and set aside.

Heat a dry skillet over low heat and pan toast chia seeds until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. Place oil and shallots in a small sauce pan and warm for 4-5 minutes over low heat. Remove from heat and whisk vinegar, mustard, sea salt to taste and toasted chia until smooth. Spoon chia seed dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Goo Balls
This chocolaty dessert will leave everyone with a smile on their face…and you can smile twice as wide, ‘cuz you know how good it is for them.

Makes 8-10 servings

1 cup non-dairy dark chocolate chips
1 cup brown rice syrup
1 cup organic almond butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
generous pinch ground cinnamon
3 cups brown rice crispies
_ cup hempseed or chia seed

Place chocolate, rice syrup, almond butter, vanilla and cinnamon in a sauce pan, over medium-low heat. Cook, whole stirring, until ingredients are quite smooth and liquid. Remove from heat and stir in rice crispies and seeds of choice. While still warm, press mixture into a 9-inch square baking dish or roll the mixture into 2-inch spheres. If pressing in a pan, allow to set until firm before slicing into squares.