With the 2018 decision by the US Congress to end the federal prohibition of cannabidiol (CBD), hundreds of companies have developed and flourished, offering thousands of products that can be found in pharmacies, supermarkets, and even convenience stores across the country. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of creating regulations for CBD products, but until rules are final, manufacturers are free to create products in whatever way they would like. Lack of accountability among CBD companies has resulted in products with vastly different levels of quality.
CBD Testing and Traceability
Because there is such diversity in quality among CBD products, the only way for consumers to ensure their safety and efficacy is through testing and traceability. Not only does testing give consumers peace of mind over what they are consuming, but it can also provide clues to the overall trustworthiness of CBD companies. When you can’t trust a company to identify and label the ingredients in its products correctly, how can you be sure they have not sacrificed quality and transparency in other ways?
Fortunately, studies conducted over the past few years have shown a marked improvement in the quality of these products. In 2015, the FDA tested 18 CBD products and found that not one of them contained CBD. The following year, they repeated the test with 22 products and found that 77% had little CBD or none. In 2019, the company Leafly conducted its own testing of 47 products and determined that over half of them contained the dose indicated on the label. Tinctures and gummies show the highest level of reliability against the doses indicated on their labels, while vape pens and topicals show a considerable range in reliability, and capsules delivered a significantly higher amount of CBD than promised.
CBD Potency Testing
To understand how labs conduct testing, it is essential to define the relevant terms. Cannabinoids are chemicals concentrated within the cannabis and hemp flower’s resin, a viscous substance produced by hair-like structures called glandular trichomes. These phytochemicals imitate the effects of endocannabinoids - naturally occurring chemicals produced by the human body that trigger the release of molecules from cells and activate cannabinoid receptors in other cells. Various structures within the brain, as well as the immune system and reproductive system, have cannabinoid receptors.
At least 113 cannabinoids have been found in the cannabis plant. The most-studied cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid shown to play a role in the promotion of sleep and suppression of arousal through interference with the uptake of adenosine, a chemical associated with the transference of energy between cells.
One of the most effective methods of CBD testing is potency testing, in which scientists measure the presence and strength of cannabinoids in various samples. Different cannabinoids produce different effects on the body, so it is important to evaluate each sample carefully before marketing it to consumers.
Potency testing allows growers, processors, and dispensaries to detect and adequately document the cannabinoid profile of each product, providing consumers with the information necessary for choosing the best strain according to their needs and determining the proper dosage.
Commonly Tested Cannabinoids
Although THC and CBD are the most recognized cannabinoids, additional cannabinoids are also tested as they interact to coordinate and implement the desired cognitive and therapeutic effects. Most potency tests focus on the following 16 cannabinoids: CBC, CBCA, CBD, CBDA, CBDV, CBDVA, CBG, CBGA, CBL, CBN, CBNA, THCA-A, THCV, THCVA, ᐃ-THC, and ᐃ8-THC.
CBN (cannabinol) provides relief from depression, sleep disorders, pain, and neurological disorders such as epilepsy. CBG (cannabigerol) offers relief from those issues, as well as inflammation, glaucoma, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) can help patients with lupus, arthritis, and nausea. THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) can also help with weight loss due to its appetite-suppressing effects and can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and PTSD.
Factors Affecting CBD Potency
Various factors influence the ability of cannabis and hemp plants to produce resin with the maximum yield of CBD. It’s important to know that different strains will have different cannabinoid profiles and varying maximum CBD yields. Choose a strain that works well for your desired effects and desired growing methods.
CBD potency can also be enhanced by carefully controlling growing factors and harvest time of CBD-producing plants. A six-year study on hemp cultivation showed that CBD yield is increased with warm air temperature, warm soil temperature, and low levels of water, including precipitation and manual watering. Trichome coloring can indicate the ideal harvest time for CBD-producing plants. Plants should not be harvested until at least 60% of their hairs have changed from clear or translucent to amber or brown, but they can be harvested up through 90% hair color change. Harvesting at the right time ensures the plants have been given sufficient time to produce the maximum amount of CBD.
How Is Potency Testing Conducted?
The two primary methods for accurately determining the CBD potency of samples are liquid chromatography and gas chromatography. When conducting a high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) test, chemists utilize a piece of equipment that detects ultra-violent wavelength, either a diode array detector (DAD) or a photodiode array detector (PAD). This method is preferable, because it allows cannabinoid testing at room temperature and in any form, including edibles, liquids, and topicals, without the necessity of heat-catalyzed reactions. HPLCs can also identify CBDA and THCA, which gas chromatography cannot.
When conducting a gas chromatography (GC) test, chemists use a flame ionization detector (FID) to heat the sample to vaporization and separate individual components. This method is simpler and faster than HPLC, but it does have limitations. Because the GC test mimics the conversion process a sample would undergo during smoking, it can only be used for products that are intended to be heated during use, mainly flower and concentrates. It detects only decarboxylated cannabinoids, and therefore cannot identify acid cannabinoids, such as CBDA or THCA. However, chemists can use a mass spectrometer detector for these cannabinoids.
CBD Traceability Testing
Along with potency testing, CBD traceability testing is the other essential step to take for ensuring CBD potency. Traceability refers to the ability to trace a product through every step of manufacture to its origin. Companies that produce CBD products need transparent production methods, from the source of the seeds to how the plants are cultivated and harvested. Traceability can be divided into the following categories:
- Origin—The company manufacturing the CBD products should know exactly where the seeds come from, where the plant was grown, and when it was harvested. This reduces the possibility of unethical or illegal growing circumstances and allows for more consistent therapeutic effects. The company should be closely involved in all factors from seed to harvest and make this information readily available. Ideally, the company is responsible not only for the processing and refining the CBD but serves as an integral component of the growth operation.
- Production process—To ensure there are no gaps in traceability, the company should be engaged in the entire process of turning a plant into a product. The path from growth to harvest to manufacture should be clear throughout every step. Products should demonstrate adherence to good manufacturing practices and obtain approval by a recognized, trusted regulatory committee, such as the FDA.
- Quality control—To provide clear evidence of quality testing, the company should include information on the label that indicates analysis from a reputable third-party testing organization. Third-party lab testing is an impartial means of determining a company’s claims, free from skewed or biased results. It makes sure products are pure and do not contain dangerous substances, such as pesticides, heavy metals, or mold. Product labels should include information on how to access these test results. Thoroughly examine these results and check them against the company’s claims.
Traceability is not only important for the manufacturer and consumer but the entire industry. The CBD market is still new, so actions taken now can have significant effects for years in the future. An industry-wide emphasis on traceability results in better regulations, higher quality products, fewer mistakes, and happier consumers. The reputation of individual companies, as well as the industry, depends on the consumers’ ability to trust CBD brands as transparent, trustworthy, and reliable.
Additional CBD Quality Testing
Lab testing also evaluates samples for evidence of positive and harmful substances, including terpenes, residual solvents, pesticides, and other contaminants. The only substance on this list that is expected to be found in CBD products are terpenes - chemicals produced in trichomes that provide the distinctive aroma and flavor found in cannabis products. Among others, terpenes result in pine and citrus-like characteristics in the final CBD product, which not only smell appealing but work to enhance the overall therapeutic effect of the products.
Residual solvents are chemicals leftover from the extraction of terpenes and cannabinoids. These chemicals are meant to evaporate, but sometimes this does not lead to complete removal. Residual solvents are not safe for human consumption and must be eliminated to create a safe product. Common in commercial growing operations, pesticides are used to prevent the infestation of pests on cannabis plants. These chemicals are known to cause cancer and other harmful mutations, especially among consumers with compromised immune systems.
As the plant grows, cannabis and hemp can absorb heavy metals from the air, water, and soil, which can be transferred from the plant to the consumer. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury must be screened to prevent serious health risks. Mycotoxins are contaminants that result from the decomposition of organic materials, including molds and other fungi. They are typically prevalent in warm environments and can be extremely harmful to consumers, especially after long-term exposure.
Royal Earth CBD products are potency tested and traceable. To view your products testing and traceability results, please visit our Certificate of Analysis page.