What is hemp? The difference between hemp, marijuana, and CBD

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What is hemp? The difference between hemp, marijuana, and CBD

  • Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant cultivated for its fibre, oil, and seeds.
  • CBD is extracted from hemp plants and doesn’t cause intoxicating effects or have any potential for addiction.
  • In the UK, CBD is legal, providing it has been extracted from plants containing less than 0.2% THC.
  • In comparison, marijuana is cannabis that’s high in THC and is illegal in the UK except for limited availability for medical use.

Although they all derive from the Cannabis sativa plant, marijuana, hemp, and CBD or cannabidiol are not created equal. Although people may use the terms marijuana, hemp, and cannabis interchangeably, there are distinct differences

Marijuana is a strain of cannabis cultivated to produce high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound that produces an intoxicating effect. So, what is hemp? Hemp is another strain of the cannabis plant that contains minimal levels of THC, and high levels of CBD, a nonintoxicating compound. 

If you’re curious to find answers to questions like “What is hemp?” “What is the difference between hemp and marijuana?” and “What is industrial hemp?” continue reading as we explore the differences between these plants and some of the active compounds they contain.

What is hemp?

Hemp is a variety of cannabis cultivated by civilisations for thousands of years. It’s prized for its fibre, oil, and seed, and more recently for CBD oil.

The family tree or taxonomy of hemp reveals that it belongs to the family Cannabaceae. This large family contains around 170 plant species and includes hops, hackberries, and cannabis.

There are three plant species within the subfamily or genus of cannabis: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.

So, what is hemp? It’s a subspecies of C.sativa with a unique composition cultivated to have negligible levels of THC.

In the UK, hemp is legal, providing the plants contain less than 0.2% THC.

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How is hemp cultivated?

Hemp is a robust, annual commercial crop typically grown outside in large plantations spanning multiple hectares.

Hemp growers must use seed that has been certified for low THC content. They then sow the seeds directly into the soil rather than transplanting them as seedlings.

The plants grow quickly and are resistant to many pests and diseases. Also, because they reach almost 5 metres high, they outcompete weeds, meaning farmers can often avoid chemical herbicides or weed killers.

Because of this and the fact that hemp absorbs large quantities of carbon dioxide, it’s widely considered an environmentally friendly crop.

What is industrial hemp?

Industrial hemp is cultivated to have a strong central stalk which is the part of the plant that produces the fibre. Hemp farmers sow the seeds close together at 10 cm intervals to encourage the plants to grow straight up towards the light rather than outwards.

In contrast, medicinal hemp is grown for its flowers and buds that manufacturers use to produce CBD oil. The plants are grown approximately 2 m apart, allowing them maximum exposure to sunlight and enough space to grow outwards and produce CBD-rich buds.

what is hemp good for

A brief history of hemp

Hemp originally came from Asia, and evidence of its use there dates back thousands of years. The earliest record of hemp in the UK mentions a Celtic princess called Cambri Formosa, who taught women to sew and weave with hemp in 373 BC.

Hemp was one of the first plants to be domesticated. Its seeds were eaten as a protein-rich snack, and its valuable fibre was used to make rope, sails, clothing, and paper. In fact, the British navy relied on hemp cables, rigging, ropes, and sails up until the late 19th century.

what is hemp good for

However, in the early 20th century, hemp fell out of favour when marijuana became popular for its intoxicating effects, and hemp was grouped into the same category. As a result, it was outlawed in 1928.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the UK started to reintroduce hemp into its agriculture system, and hemp was legalised once again in 1993.

Since then, its popularity has grown, and it’s now used for making paper, food, dietary supplements, textiles, and cosmetics.

What is marijuana?

Marijuana may refer to Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. The plants are non-fertilised females that develop large buds and highly resinous flowers containing an abundance of cannabinoids and high levels of THC. Because of the THC content, marijuana produces feelings of deep relaxation, euphoria, and a cerebral high.

In comparison to hemp, marijuana is genetically distinct and has a different chemical composition. Except for limited medical cases, it is illegal to possess, grow, or distribute in the UK.

What is CBD?

CBD is a nonintoxicating compound found in hemp plants and is the active ingredient in broad-spectrum CBD oil. 

It’s been shown to have a range of positive effects, including supporting individuals experiencing pain, inflammation, anxiety, and sleeping issues.

It exerts these effects by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoids system (ECS), an internal regulator of stress, mood, pain, and other functions in the body.

CBD, unlike THC, is not intoxicating and will not produce a “high.” For this reason, CBD has become a widely used supplement, as people look for natural ways of supporting their health.

The interest in plant-based diets has also stimulated the use of plant-based CBD Oil. You can now find this natural supplement in many forms, including CBD oils, topicals, capsules, edibles, and gummies.

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Hemp vs marijuana vs CBD

What is the difference between hemp oil and CBD oil?

CBD oil and hemp oil are both extracted from hemp, but they are not the same product. Somewhat confusingly, people may use the term hemp oil to refer to CBD oil and use hemp oil and hemp seed oil interchangeably. However, these two oils have distinct purposes and come from different parts of the plant.

So, what is hemp oil, and what is hemp oil good for? Hemp oil or hemp seed oil is made by cold pressing the seeds from hemp plants. Although it doesn’t have any intoxicating properties or contain any cannabinoids, it provides unique health benefits due to its nutrients, which include:

  • Protein
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
  • Minerals including zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron
  • Vitamin E
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And what is hemp oil used for? You can use hemp oil as you would any other healthy oil. For example, try adding it to salads, soups, and sauces or combining it into baked goods.

Some research suggests that hempseed oil could lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease, and reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. Additionally, some studies show it may help improve symptoms of eczema.

In comparison, CBD oil is made from other parts of the hemp plant, as the seeds are not a good source of CBD. Broad-spectrum CBD oil is rich in valuable botanical compounds, including cannabigerol (CBG), cannabidivarin (CBDV), and of course, CBD.

People typically use CBD oil as a dietary supplement to support general health and well-being.

Types of hemp products

The hemp plant is incredibly versatile, and if you’re looking for a natural way to maintain health, hemp products are a great option. Besides hemp seed oil, you can find options including whole or cracked seeds, protein powder, milk, and cosmetics.

Hemp protein powder

What is hemp protein? It’s a protein made from hemp seeds and is a great source of plant-based protein suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

It contains all nine essential amino acids and is well absorbed by the body. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are essential for building bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin. So it’s critical you have enough protein in your diet to repair cells and create new ones.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into flour. They contain an impressive 25% protein, beating both flax and chia seeds which contain around 20% and 18% protein, respectively.

Interestingly, weight for weight, hemp seeds provide similar amounts of protein as beef or lamb.

Additionally, hemp seeds are high in vitamin E, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and other essential nutrients.

what is hemp good for

Hemp milk

You can buy hemp milk or make it yourself at home by soaking hemp seeds in water and blending them in a food processor. The resulting milk has a nutty flavour and creamy consistency, which is delicious on its own, or you can add sweetener and other flavourings to taste.

It’s a great alternative to animal-derived milk and can be used in smoothies, coffee, and breakfast cereal. Plus, it contains all the goodness of hemp seeds.

what is hemp used for

Hemp cosmetics

Because of hemp seed oil’s unique fatty acid composition, it has a good affinity to skin and can penetrate deeply to provide optimal results.

In addition, it acts to reinforce the skin’s protective barrier and reduce water loss.

Therefore, manufacturers add hemp seed oil to cosmetic products, including cleansers, moisturisers, and skin conditioners.


The answer to “What is hemp?” is multifaceted as the plant is incredibly versatile with a long history of cultivation.

Hemp provides incredibly strong and durable fibre, which can be made into cloth, clothing, rope, and paper. It’s also a source of hemp seeds, which are high in protein and essential nutrients and can be used to make protein powder, milk, and oil.

The term hemp oil may refer to CBD oil or hemp seed oil. Although the hemp plant is the source of both these oils, hemp seed oil contains no cannabinoids and comes from cold-pressed seeds.

Contrastingly, CBD oil is harvested from other parts of the hemp plant and is a rich source of cannabinoids, which may contribute to overall health and well-being.

Hemp vs Marijuana Infographic Naturecan

Disclaimer: There is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of CBD in the condition(s) mentioned above and this text by no means reflects recommended uses. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional if you are taking prescribed medication or are thinking of using CBD for your condition.

Written by Zia Sherrell and reviewed by our qualified expert, Moyra Cosgrove, Head of Nutrition at Naturecan, SENR Registered Nutritionist and DProf candidate at LJMU


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