Interview with Ruth Shamai of Ruth's Hemp Foods

Sunday, July 17, 2005
by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger
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Mike: I'm here with Ruth Shamai of Ruth's Hemp Foods. The company's web address is ruthshempfoods.com. Ruth, you have a line of hemp-based products. Could you give people an overview of your product line, and then we'll get into more of the history of your company and your experience?

Shamai: Absolutely. First, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to conduct the interview. I'm happy to speak with you.

Mike: My pleasure.

Shamai: Hemp has been eaten for thousands of years in different parts of the world. It's the seed that we eat, and it's beneficial in terms of protein and essential fatty acids. People in Persia used to eat it, and they still do, actually. I know Iranians who grew up eating toasted hemp seeds. There's evidence that goes back thousands of years that it was being eaten in China and in different places around the world for those health benefits. Hemp has kind of had a renaissance starting in the early 90s. I was part of the lobby that helped to legalize or re-legalize hemp in Canada, which we accomplished in '98 for commercial growth. Since then, I have been producing a line of hemp foods to spread the news and the nourishment of hemp.

Mike: Can you talk about the basic macronutrient composition of hemp seeds?

Shamai: In the broadest strokes, you can basically divide it roughly into three components. There are essential fatty acids in the oil -- omega-6, omega-3, omega-9 -- and also minor fatty acids like gamma linolenic acid and stearidonic acid. So that's one-third of its composition. Another one-third consists mostly of fiber, both soluble and insoluble. And it's also one-third protein.

Mike: So it has a very balanced nutritional make-up, I would say. Would you agree?

Shamai: Yes.

Mike: For the carbs, you said it's mostly fiber and the rest are just going to be complex carbohydrates, correct?

Shamai: Yes. There's virtually no starch, so there's only a little sugar.

Mike: For what kinds of products are these hemp seeds now being used in the foods and supplements industries?

Shamai: Well, there are some oils on the market -- hemp oil, crushed from the hemp seed. Again, that has the same ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 -- which it's most known for -- as well as the other omegas that I described, and we can talk more about that. So there are oils. People also take the entire seed and shell it -- that is, take the shell off the inside and you then just have the soft interior. So you're removing a lot of the carbs and leaving primarily protein and oil. Then you can make protein powders from them by removing the oil and milling the rest into something like a flour, then sifting it to remove more of the carbs so that you're left with a higher protein fraction. I make all of those products and I make them certified-organic. In addition to that, I incorporate hemp seeds into more commonly used foods, like energy bars and salad dressings. I used to make tortilla chips.

Mike: Oh, really?

Shamai: Yes, and I think I might start to make tortilla chips again due to popular demand. I actually discontinued them almost two years ago, but even today someone from a large chain in Canada came to me and asked, "Why can't we get your chips anymore?" And I hear this all the time!

Mike: It's good to have demand for the product.

Shamai: It is, it is. I can really honestly say, "By popular demand." I love that.

Mike: Let's talk about your hemp protein powder product line. You have protein powder by itself, you have it with sprouted flax, and you also have it with sprouted flax and maca. Which of these is the most popular variety?

Shamai: The sprouted flax and maca, for sure. It's the most expensive, and when I was formulating them, I was thinking that people wouldn't know what maca is, and it's costly, and who knows -- but people love it. I have an Olympic endorsement for that product from an Olympic runner. I have this one diabetic man who emails me virtually every day to tell me how much he loves it. Last night the email said "I really want you to know that you can give me a lifetime supply of this." He didn't tell me how old he is (laughs).

Mike: It's interesting to me -- why would people want maca with a hemp protein powder? What's the synergy there?

Shamai: Well, you're taking all of those things -- the hemp, sprouted flax and maca -- for very different reasons, right? So you're taking the protein for endurance, stamina, muscle building and all of those things. You're taking the sprouted flax for enzymatic activity, omega-3, lignins and fiber. And you're taking the maca for the phytosterols and minerals. The maca energy -- we don't exactly know which constituent in maca is responsible for that -- is for the hormonal balance. But that is the effect: The hormonal balancing. So you're working with different parts of the body to produce an overall well-being.

Mike: What are the most popular uses your customers are putting these products to? Are they blending them with protein shakes? How are they using the product?

Shamai: They're using it as a base for protein shakes. I have met people who are stirring it into yogurt and eating it like that. I know people who bake with it. You can substitute in any recipe for about 15 percent of flour. So that would lower the carbs and increase the protein and add fiber in it. So that's a good thing to do with it as well. But most people use it in a protein shake. Mike, I've brought you one of them. My beautiful hemp flax maca. Please note that there are 5000 mg of maca per serving.

Mike: Oh, that's quite a bit of maca.

Shamai: It is. But you know something, I didn't really realize it when I was formulating. I talked to an herbalist who's worked with maca for 20 years, and I asked, "What is the right amount for me to put in here?" He talked about different people, different needs and finally said, "You know, 5000 mg is a good amount for someone to get in a day."

Mike: Is that right?

Shamai: Yes. He said that's an effective amount. So I thought, "Great," and I did it. Then afterward, I looked around and saw that people were selling capsules with 500 mg or 750 mg. Its closest competitor has 2500 mg. So suddenly I thought, "Wow, I really did it right," although I know a triathlete who takes 15,000 mg a day.

Mike: Okay, now that's a lot of maca. I thought this was a lot, but that's more.

Shamai: But he's a triathlete, right? So he needs more.

Mike: Sure. He burns 6,000 calories a day or more.

Shamai: There you go -- three times the amount of the normal diet. He takes three times the amount.

Mike: Great. Now, let's talk about the bars as well. You have hemp and flax bars. First, I have to ask you -- what about distribution? Where can people find these products right now in their local communities?

Shamai: In health food stores. If they don't see them, they can ask for them. They are in general distribution to health food stores in the Western United States. In the East it's a little bit harder, although they can certainly get them. There is distribution to health food stores in the East. But in the West, they're readily available through the mainstream health food distributors.

Mike: For those who can't find them locally, can they go to your website?

Shamai: They can. And I supply from the website as well. Of course, I try to not undermine the retailers and the distributors. So I prefer that. But I love it when people order on the internet. So feel free.

Mike: What about outside the United States?

Shamai: Well, in Canada it's all over. I'm a Canadian.

Mike: U.K. and Australia?

Shamai: I haven't exported to those countries yet. I do get the occasional order from there, and I do accept those orders. But in general, I haven't exported. At this show, I have met a few UK distributors who are interested.

Mike: Good. There's so much of a thirst for knowledge in the U.K. for nutritional information. We have so many readers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Southeast Asia and South America. And of course, Canada. So people can order these internationally if they're willing to pay shipping?

Shamai: Exactly.

Mike: You have a variety of hemp and flax bars. I see various flavors. Can you tell me what's not in these bars? The ingredients that people want to avoid, such as hydrogenated oils? What do you leave out?

Shamai: The entire line is free of genetically modified ingredients. I always leave out genetically modified ingredients. In some cases, that can be a little tricky, such as for the chocolate raspberry bar. Those bars are not organic, and that's a price point decision. I wanted to make the hemp more accessible to people, and they are more accessible at a lower price point; therefore, they're not organic. But the chocolate raspberry bar has organic chocolate, because normal chocolate contains lecithin, which is from soy. Soy is generally GMO, right? I want to avoid that, so I buy the organic chocolate for those, even though it's a non-organic blend, to ensure that there is no genetically modified lecithin used in my bar. So that's one principle. There are also no hydrogenated or trans fats and no refined sugar. They're held together either with honey, rice syrup or agave syrup.

Mike: That's wonderful. You use agave; that's nice to hear.

Shamai: What else is not in there? The fruit is unsulfured. It's also a soy-free line. I believe that you're interested in soy, but I don't want to have the soy in my products. It's just a nice, clean line.

The politics of hemp

Mike: Can you talk more about the hemp -- your experience with the politics of hemp?

Shamai: Well, it's really, really different in Canada and the States. I can tell you that for sure. In Canada it was illegal, and a number of people said that we should legalize hemp. Some people, such as Joe Strobel and Jeff Klein, who I know personally, applied for a research license to grow hemp. That was probably in 1996, I think. It was the first growing license. And Health Canada said, "What? Hemp?" But they granted the license and then they started looking at it. More and more people showed them how they could distinguish between hemp and marijuana. They said, "Okay, that's possible. There's no harm in doing this. There's a market that might be created, and it's good for the environment. So let's do it." They made a regime where you do have to have a license to grow hemp in Canada, but it's actually easier to get than a driver's license. But they do want to know who's growing it. Since then, it's been pretty trouble-free. It's grown throughout Canada, and the amount of acreage increases every year.

Mike: With the hemp plant, you have so many uses for it, right? You have the seeds for nutritional purposes, then you have the hemp fiber which has all sorts of uses, correct?

Shamai: In Popular Mechanics in 1938, their cover said, "The Billion Dollar Plant." There's 25,000 different uses for the hemp plant, and we're at the very tip of the iceberg.

Mike: So it's only been legal for seven years or so in Canada?

Shamai: That's right.

Mike: Canada is exporting, I assume, probably many tons of hemp products and fibers to the United States, correct?

Shamai: Not fiber too much. That has other challenges. But seed, for sure. I would say probably that 80 to 90 percent of the hemp used in the United States in the body care and health food industry comes from Canada.

Mike: So here's a situation where the United States is sort of "behind the curve," missing out and almost punishing U.S. farmers by not having this opportunity to grow a crop that really brings wealth, abundance and nutrition to the community. But Canada is jumping on it, thanks to people like you, it seems.

Shamai: Of course, as a Canadian, I'm happy about that (laughs). But there is a bill, a Private Members bill, I think, in front of your legislature from assemblyman Leno to legalize hemp growth in California. We'll see how that fares. Of course, even if that passes, the DEA will still step in and say, "No, no, no." That's a federal-state kind of fight. So even if it passes here, it's not a done deal exactly. But it's a first step toward hemp growing. Truly, we're not that threatened by it in Canada, because I think the fiber, which I said we're not really exporting much of, would probably be more of an opportunity in the United States than in Canada. I think the seed would be less of an opportunity.

Mike: Why is that?

Shamai: Because of the climate. Higher heat will produce more THC. Both countries want the hemp to remain THC-free.

Mike: So there's a regional effect in terms of just being able to grow the right phytochemicals.

Shamai: Yes. We have varieties that are very, very low in THC. But we also have a very strict standard. So you don't need too much of a climatic variable to push it slightly over. It would still never be a drug. But it might start to creep up. I think that's possible.

Mike: There's a sense here in the United States -- many would say a false sense -- that people want to grow marijuana and call it hemp. Or, they think it's just a hippie movement. But increasingly, I find that scientists, economists and well-educated, well-spoken people are speaking up on hemp -- people like yourself. Are you seeing this shift toward the more intellectual or influential people in society backing hemp now?

Shamai: I think that there's always been a contingent. Anyone who's serious and looks at it can see many reasons to grow hemp. I mean, the farmers need alternative crops, the soil needs things that can be grown without leaching so many chemicals into it, and then there's the whole fiber industry, with cotton being four percent of the world's crop but using 52 percent of the world's agricultural inputs, right? You want to replace some of that for your textiles and other things with a crop like hemp.

Mike: I was going to mention the cotton factor here. Does this play heavily into the politics in the United States?

Shamai: It could. Personally, I believe that one thing -- and this is only my personal belief -- that plays heavily into the politics in the United States is the prison industry. The prison industry is, I think, one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. In Canada, we don't have urine drug testing, but you do in the States, of course. People who smoke marijuana like to stand behind the hemp shield and say, "No, I was just eating hemp products." Right? As an industry, we fight that, and we say, "No, you weren't." Eating hemp will not trigger a urine drug test, but it still can raise reasonable doubt. And it can make it harder for courts to get convictions. That can cripple the prison industry -- maybe not cripple -- but it could have an effect on it.

Mike: As far as your products being distributed in the U.S. market, you're not having any regulatory problems or pressures?

Shamai: Not at all. Canada has the strictest THC regulation in the entire world. Besides complying with those, there are random checks, and there are checks that we do ourselves on all of our products. We know that they will never trigger a drug test. That's why, as an industry, we actually work against people who try to hide behind that when they're arrested for drug charges. We know that it was not our product that was causing that -- absolutely not. Besides that, there's a voluntary organization within the hemp industry called "Test Pledge." Test Pledge has conducted third party studies to set out the levels at which drug tests will be triggered by THC -- not that you would be high from it, but just that it could still trigger a very sensitive test. It's similar to how people eating poppy seed bagels used to be busted for heroin, right? But they raised those levels, so people are not being busted any more.

Mike: Right.

Shamai: They haven't done that for hemp. So instead, we've gone the other way. We've said, "Okay, it might be triggered at this level. Let's take it down many, many, many notches and say that's the maximum amount of THC you can have in your product in order to never trigger a drug test at quite a large amount of consumption."

Mike: I see.

Shamai: This is a voluntary organization. The levels set out in it are many times less than the Canadian government has set out. My company, Ruth's Hemp Foods, is Test Pledge compliant; we are a member of that. I know absolutely that we would never trigger a drug test.

Mike: May I shift gears here and ask about any health concerns that hemp products address and that have clinical backing or any kind of double blind placebo-controlled studies?

Shamai: Unfortunately, we're a pretty young and rather under-funded industry, so there haven't been hardly any third party studies conducted. There is actually testing under way now. It's a third party test to establish the protein-efficiency ratios, with rat feeding studies and all of those kinds of protocols. All we have now are lab analyses, which is a little different than a protein efficiency ratio. Everything else is basically anecdotal.

Mike: There's a universe of information now about the benefits of healthy oils, and that, of course, benefits you by association.

Shamai: By association. As our own industry, we don't have those [studies yet.] It'll be published, believe me. We're eager to get it out there. Oftentimes when the media talks about healthy oils, they'll talk about omega-3, but they won't talk about hemp.

Mike: It's all flax.

Shamai: Yes, it's all flax and fish oil and stuff like that. So as soon as those studies come out, we'll be publicizing them because that'll be the first time we can say, "Now you don't have a reason not to talk about it." Up until now, you could have said that it was our own fault, that we haven't conducted those studies. After they come out, however, we'll be able to say, "Here's the study, now talk about our oil!"

Mike: Wonderful. Ruth, is there anything else you'd like to mention to the readers of our interview?

Shamai: Well, I think it's a wonderful thing that in our society now so many people are interested in healthy diets, in shifting away from meat-based diets and unhealthy things. It's amazing to me how fast that is speeding up. I read just last week that McDonald's has put apples on their menu instead of french fries as an option. In doing so, it has overnight become the largest buyer of fresh apples in the United States.

Mike: Really? I wasn't aware of this either. It just happened?

Shamai: It just happened. I think that's very reflective of the movement of society as a whole. So for people who want to shift away from a meat-based diet and incorporate healthier options, hemp is a wonderful vegetarian alternative. It's also one of the few things that incorporates both the healthy fats and excellent, high-quality protein. So basically, eat it and be happy.

Mike: Is it a complete protein?

Shamai: Yes, it is. It has all the essential amino acids in it.

Mike: Outstanding. Are you sure McDonald's isn't battering and deep frying the apples or something like that?

Shamai: No, but they do offer a caramel dip with it, I'm told. I haven't checked this out personally.

Mike: Thank you, Ruth. It's been a real pleasure chatting with you.

Shamai: It's been a pleasure to chat with you as well, and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Mike: You're quite welcome, and I wish you the best of success with your product line.

Shamai: Thank you.

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