Hemp Seeds vs Flax Seeds

In the desire for better health we’re always looking for an edge. Here I compare Hemp seeds vs flax seed; two plant protein sources. We’ll take a look at how they compare nutritionally, including phytonutrients, their culinary uses and the best ones to buy.

A comprehensive nutrition and culinary comparison of hemp hearts and flax meal

What are Hemp seeds?

Hemp seeds are derived from the marijuana plant, but without the intoxicating components. Generally, people are referring to hulled hemp seeds or hemp hearts. Hemp hearts do not have a hard outer cover, are easiest to find in grocery stores and are absorbed best.

Hemp hearts are over ⅔ fat, less than ⅓ protein and the remaining carbohydrate, based on calories.

What are the benefits of hemp seeds?

Hulled hemp seeds are considered a complete plant protein source which means they have all 9 essential amino acids, with almost as much protein as soybeans. They’re PDCAAS (protein digestibility amino acid score) is 83-92 or about 63-66% absorbed

For comparison, whole hemp seeds have a score of 49-53%.

Hemp hearts have an omega 6 (linoleic acid) to omega 3 (linolenic acid) ratio of 3:1. This is better than the desired range of 4:1. Since many American diets have ratios much higher, incorporating hemp seeds may help offset the balance.   

Hemp seeds also contain stearidonic acid (SDA, an omega 3) that is one step closer to EPA than ALA. SDA may be more effective than ALA in inhibiting the inflammatory process.

Hemp hearts are an excellent source of iron, thiamin, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese.

Hemp seeds in the kitchen

I find hemp seeds are grassier and thus harder to mask in foods, than flax. Additionally they’ll have a bit more of a crunchy texture than ground flax. They’re more similar to whole flax in terms of texture. 

Hemp seeds can be ground into a flour and used in baked goods as well, in a similar proportion as flax. They too produce a good milk alternative and can be added into smoothies, oats and several similar foods. 

Hemp seed substitute 

Similar to flax, hemp can be substituted with chia seeds and other ground nuts. 

If you’re choosing hemp seeds for the gamma-linolenic acid (18:3 omega-6; ‘GLA’) and stearidonic acid (18:4 omega-3; ‘SDA’), then black currant berries fit the bill. As sources of GLA and SDA are limited.

How does hemp grow, and what should I buy?

Hemp is one of the fastest growing weeds in the world. As I mentioned in a previous post this crop likely doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers and therefore is probably okay to purchase as conventional or organic.  

Check out this post to read more about how hemp is grown

Comparing the nutrition and phytonutrients of Hulled Hemp seeds vs Flax Meal

Related: Hemp Seed vs Chia Seed: The Most Comprehensive Review

What are flax seeds?

Flax seeds are also known as linseeds. The term, linseed, is used in industrial applications, such as for clothing or animal feed. These seeds are best consumed ground to obtain the most nutrition, as flax meal, or ground flax. 

What are the benefits of flax seeds?

Flax meal is about ⅔  fat, ¼ carbohydrate and the remaining protein based on calories. Flax seeds have a similar PDCAAS score (85) to hemp seeds, but they don’t contain as much total protein.

Flax has only about 1.5 grams of protein per tablespoon, as compared to about 3 grams found in hemp hearts. 

The majority of the fat is provided by alpha-linolenic acid, a plant source of omega 3 fatty acids. Flax is the best plant source of ALA available. 

Flax is the richest food source of lignans, which is a steroid-like chemical structure, also known as phytoestrogens. Which mimics the effects of estrogen and potentially reduces hormone dependent cancers such as breast cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Flax contains up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods. Lignans are found in all plants, and act as both an antioxidant and phytoestrogen

Flax seeds in the kitchen

Flax seeds have a nutty, slightly sweeter flavor. They can be used to replace portions of flour in many baked goods, sprinkled into oats and smoothies and as a milk substitute. They’re also a good emulsifying ingredient, such as used in dressings. 

Also, don’t forget about flaxseed oil, which has the best bioavailability form of ALA, compared to ground, and whole seeds. 

Flax seed substitute

A good culinary substitute for flax meal is ground nuts, or other seeds like chia seeds or hemp seeds, as well as wheat germ.

If you’re using flax meal for its nutritional benefits, such as the fiber or phytoestrogens, a great substitute is sesame seeds, which is another rich source of lignans.

Is there a difference between brown and golden flax? 

Although the nutritional panels do not indicate a nutritional difference one study found variations between brown and golden flax including varying levels of antioxidants

Given the two different colors, the varying antioxidants make sense. Golden flax may be better at reducing intestinal permeability while brown flax has more antioxidants. Which leads me to suggest you include both in your diet.

How do flax grow, and what should I buy?

Flax seed is a beautiful, and tough little plant that grows well in hot, sunny environments with poor soil. Although flax seeds likely do not require fertilizer, they may benefit from pesticides.  Therefore, I would recommend purchasing organic flax if your pocketbook allows. 

I really like the brand Bob’s Red Mill; they’re easy to find, quality products. 


Can you substitute flaxseed for hemp seed?

Yes, depending on the culinary use. 

Flax has the ability to absorb more water thanks to its higher fiber content. Therefore, it actually works as a decent egg substitute, much like a chia egg

To make a flax egg, simply combine about 1 tablespoon of flax to about 2 tablespoons of water. In my opinion, flax eggs do not work as well as chia eggs for binding ingredients.

That said, if a recipe is utilizing flax meal as an “egg substitute” then no, hemp hearts are not a good substitute. But, if either flax or hemp hearts are used in recipes to add fiber, health benefits, crunch or flavor – then by all means – experiment!  

Storage

Since both seeds are higher in fat they are vulnerable to rancidity. It’s best to keep them stored in a cool, dry place. Ideally in the fridge, in a sealed container; limiting their exposure to light, heat and air. 

If you choose to grind either of them, it’s best to eat them straight away. But, if not immediately, they should be consumed within at least a few months. 

Which is better: hemp seeds vs flax seeds?

Concerning protein, hemp wins. With nearly equal protein quality, hemp has more overall protein (10 grams/3 tbsp serving) vs. flax meal (4.5 grams/3 tbsp serving). 

Hemp also has nearly 3 x the fat. And hemp has stearidonic acid and gamma linolenic acid, both of which are more readily converted to DHA & EPA. Which research shows is beneficial for turning down the inflammatory process and improving cholesterol levels. 

But, flax seeds have a unique play in hormone metabolism that those with certain conditions (such as Hashimotos, and breast cancer) may benefit from. 

Flax seed also has a more robust history of medicinal uses, versus hemp seeds and was considered a remedy for skin, blood pressure, glucose metabolism, cancer, coughs and much more. This may be different when considering other forms of hemp. 

As I always say, plant diversity is best. There isn’t any one food you could, or should sustain on. Therefore, find creative ways to use them both, in various forms such as ground and oil, throughout your diet.