How to make sure you’re buying what you’re looking for — and how to make sure those products are safe and effective.
A steady incline of cannabis acceptance and legalization has led the market to become flooded with a wide variety of cannabis product options. Hemp, reigning from the Cannabis sativa L. genome, falls into this generalized category, leaving many people puzzled as they shop for cannabis products about whether or not what they’re buying counts as hemp products or cannabis products.
With federal hemp legalization officially passed in the 2018 Farm Bill on December 20, the question of how to shop for hemp products has only become more important. The official new federal hemp regulations have yet to be released by the Department of Agriculture, but there are certain steps you can take now to ensure the products you are buying are safe and effective.
For customers that are shopping for cannabis products in states with medical and recreational programs, a range of regulations backed up by testing requirements exists to protect consumers, who even have the opportunity to ask their bud-tenders questions when shopping at their local dispensaries. However, when it comes to shopping for hemp products, there is a significant lack of regulations, protection and guidance — at least for now. Recognizing this is a prime source of confusion and uncertainty, we’ve put together this detailed resource for brands and customers alike, in hopes to educate and unify us all.
Emma Chasen, who co-owns and operates a cannabis consulting business Eminent Consulting, told HEMP, “More often than not, consumers look to cannabis and hemp products for some kind of healing. Yet, people typically cannot get accurate information about cannabis or hemp from their doctors.”
Struggling to find a single source of reliable information online, customers are expecting cannabis and hemp companies to provide accurate information — and while many companies are leading the way with valiant transparency, there are also many brands who are simply confused.
In effort to bridge the gap, this article breaks down important terminology, offering tips on determining what products are best for you and insight on dosage guidelines. We also kindly point out common mistakes in labeling and explain why this disconnect occurs. Before diving into the heart of this resource, we’ve included a brief introduction outlining some basic cannabis science.
HEMP’s Guide For Buying Hemp & Cannabis Products
- Cannabis: “Marijuana” and Hemp
- Understanding Prominent Molecular Components of Cannabis
- Cannabis Extracts & Byproducts
- Selecting a Product
- Common Mistakes in Labeling
- Marketing & Hype
- Lab Results, Sourcing & Processing Methods
- Conclusion: The Takeaways for Companies and Consumers
1. Cannabis: “Marijuana” & Hemp
Hemp is legally defined as varieties of the Cannabis Sativa L.plant that contain very low levels of THC (0.3 percent or less by dry weight). Hemp can contain a myriad of other cannabinoids, because the legal definition of hemp only concerns THC concentrations. As a general rule of thumb: if a product containing cannabis can be purchased online, its cannabinoids are derived from hemp because there is currently a legal gray area around purchasing hemp products online.
“Marijuana” (more commonly known as medical/recreational cannabis) is a variety of cannabis containing high levels of THC. Products in this category can be purchased in some states with a valid medical license, in other states at a recreational dispensary, and unfortunately for some, is still deemed as illegal by their state’s legislation. Most people don’t risk selling marijuana products online, given the federal government clearly considers it highly illegal to do so.
Since hemp and marijuana reign from the same plant genome, “cannabis” is an accurate term to describe both. Visually, the appearances of these plants are quite similar, though there are distinguishing attributes to each variety (or strain). They both contain similar cannabinoids, phytonutrients, and phytocompounds including chlorophyll, flavonoids, and terpenes. However, calling both plants “cannabis” isn’t always transparent with consumers who want to know where their products are coming from and who don’t know the differences between hemp and “marijuana.”
2. Understanding Prominent Molecular Components of Hemp
Though many other cannabinoids have been discovered and are being studied, the most commonly known cannabinoids — THC and CBD — surprisingly do not occur in significant concentrations in cannabis. In fact, their corresponding acids (THCA, CBDA, THCVA, CBDVA, CBCVA, etc.) are actually the predominant cannabinoids found in the plant. Due to their thermally unstable nature, the act of decarboxylation converts these acids into the cannabinoids we are most familiar with.
Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction; typically occurring when a molecule is exposed to light and heat (via smoking, baking, or refluxing), but is also possible via oxidation. Ingesting raw plant matter will not have the same effect as ingesting a product that has properly decarboxylated the cannabinoids.
THC is not found in a significant quantity in hemp or hemp byproducts, because by law, hemp products contain less than 0.3 percent THC. This is not enough to feel any effect of the THC. THC is psychoactive, defined as “affecting the mind,” and psychotropic, meaning it “affects mental activity, behavior, or perception, as a mood-altering drug.” THC is also intoxicating, which is medically defined as affecting “temporarily with diminished physical and mental control by means of (…) a drug, or another substance.”
So far, THC is the only cannabinoid that scientists have determined undoubtedly has intoxicating effects. Other cannabinoids that might be intoxicating are variants of THC, such as THCV, which is not present in significant quantities in commercial strains/products. This is a prime example of why dosage matters: THCV in lower doses act as a CB1 receptor antagonist (does not produce a ‘high’ effect). At higher doses, it can switch, behaving as a CB1 agonist, much like THC (in higher doses it can produce a psychoactive buzz). The possible benefits of THC are dependent upon things such as dosage, consumption method, consumption pairings, and body chemistry.
CBD is non-intoxicating, as it has no diminished effect of physical and mental control. However, CBD is psychoactive, despite the common misconception that it is “non-psychoactive.” This molecule actually does affect the mind. If CBD were a non-psychoactive molecule, it would not be capable of the various forms of mental relief that have been noted. Psychoactive does not mean “high.” The possible benefits of CBD are dependent upon things such as dosage, consumption method, consumption pairings, and body chemistry.
These major biosynthetic building blocks are best known as aroma/flavor compounds found in plants. A variety of therapeutic effects have been noted with various ingestion methods; aromatherapy being the most normative. Terpenes can be extracted from a plant and isolated as an “essential oil.” Terpenes can also be produced synthetically. Various extraction processes degrade the terpenes naturally present in hemp (and cannabis in general), so it’s quite common to see products with reintroduced terpenes. The customer has the right to know whether the terpenes present in any given product were naturally present and cannabis-derived, plant-derived or synthetically produced.
Cannabis-Derived Terpenes: Strain specific cannabis-derived terpenes are not identical across the board, due to phenotype and chemotype variation. It is believed that terpenes extracted from a cannabis plant will provide a more natural synergy, when reintroduced to cannabinoid profiles. However, terpenes extracted from cannabis plants are a pricey ingredient. Cannabis plants are less abundant than the collective amount of non-cannabis plants in the world. Ultimately, the return from extraction is also very low.
Plant or Fruit-Derived Terpenes Prominent terpenes that are found in cannabis also are naturally abundant in other plants, such as limonene in lemons, linalool in lavender, and beyond. Because it is typically less expensive to source terpenes from plants besides cannabis, plenty of companies boost their products — especially concentrates — with plant-derived terpenes. Until more research is done, it also won’t be clear if any medical benefits will vary if the terpenes are not cannabis-derived.
Synthetic Terpenes: Synthetic terpenes are produced in a lab by chemical manipulation and blending. The full effects of consuming synthetic terpenes, especially when smoked, have not been studied.
Thousands of flavonoids have been identified all throughout nature, from flowers to fruits and vegetables. Though they are not unique to cannabis plants, some have only been found in cannabis, so far. Flavonoids are phytonutrients, with a primary function being to provide non-green color pigmentation to plants. Cannabis’s flavor and odor are possible due to the synergy of terpenes and flavonoids, and it is important to remember that flavonoids are pharmacologically active compounds.
Fatty Acids (FA)
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the most well-known fatty acids present in cannabis. Fatty acids can be found in foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and nuts, and cannabis and hemp seeds contain a perfect 3:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Many products that “contain cannabis” or “contain hemp” will actually only contain oil from hemp seeds, which has been legal as a foodstuff in the United States for years.
Understanding the Entourage Effect: The “entourage effect” is the name for the results or effects produced via the synergistic interaction of cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes and fatty acids naturally found in cannabis. More simply, this term describes the benefit from ingesting naturally present components of the cannabis plant together instead of individual isolated components. Health practitioners widely agree this effect is legitimate, as patients seem to respond best to the synergy of full spectrum effects, in comparison to isolated molecules. Many people prefer products that contain THC, even when present in extremely low doses, because the THC molecule contributes to the entourage effect.
3. Hemp & Cannabis Extracts & Byproducts
Now that we’re familiar with the differences between hemp and “marijuana” and the variety of compounds that exist in both types of plants, we can explore the different products that are made from cannabis.
Cannabis Oil / Cannabis Extract
Used within the medicinal and recreational cannabis market, these products contain high levels of THC, in addition to other cannabinoids and any naturally present terpenes that weren’t degraded during extraction. Varying extraction methods determine the outcome of the final product, both visually and through its molecular content. Many cannabis extracts today have reintroduced terpenes, though most are seemingly added for flavor and not for boosted therapeutic effects.
Hemp Oil / Hemp Extract
Hemp oil and hemp extract is made from the entire hemp plant, including leaf, stem, and seeds. It contains CBD and other cannabinoids. Levels of THC are low (within federally legal limit below 0.3 percent) or entirely undetectable. Hemp oil and hemp extract can be full spectrum or broad spectrum. If a product is labeled solely as hemp oil or hemp extract and the brand doesn’t or can’t make any further attempt to clarify, it should probably be avoided as this is simply not enough information to make the most responsible decision.
Also referred to as “full plant” or “whole plant” extract, full spectrum oil extract is a specific type of hemp oil/hemp extract. In a full spectrum hemp extract, the entire hemp plant is used for extraction. The final product includes all naturally present cannabinoids (CBD, CBDV, CBC, CBN, CBDA etc.), terpenes, flavonoids, and fatty acids. A legal, trace amount of THC is present. Full spectrum hemp extracts are celebrated for the entourage effect they can deliver.
Similar to full spectrum extracts, except entirely lacking THC, broad spectrum oil/extract is produced in one of two ways: (1) THC is removed from the full spectrum extract (2) CBD isolate is combined with other isolated cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, in attempt to mimic the full spectrum effect.
To better understand the product, it’s fair to ask the product company which of the previously mentioned methods they used to create the broad spectrum formula in question. If Option 2, look into lab results to determine which isolated compounds were used, to help decide if this is the best product for you.
As the name suggests, CBD isolate products are made with an isolated version of the CBD molecule. There are not any other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, or fatty acids naturally present in the product, unless they were added to a product separately.
Without the ability to offer an entourage effect, it’s often assumed that CBD isolate lacks efficiency. Though there may not be naturally synergistic effects occurring in CBD isolate, products containing this isolated molecule still have the potential to offer therapeutic benefits.
CBD isolate has a wide variety of application possibilities. Particularly, CBD isolate is beneficial to balance dosage when consuming cannabis extract or cannabis products high in THC content.
Hemp Seed Oil (HSO)
This nutrient rich oil is extracted from the seeds of hemp plants, typically cold-pressed. Hemp seed oil contains zero cannabinoids — free of THC and CBD. Therefore, products containing HSO typically do not label “dosage,” and this is may mislead customers to believe the product contains cannabinoids. Hemp seed oil is non-psychoactive, non-psychotropic, and non-intoxicating. Products containing strictly HSO are federally legal, and have been regulated by the FDA for decades.
Hemp seed oil has a wide variety of application possibilities. When applied topically, HSO is deeply hydrating, non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores), and is naturally absorbent.
4) Selecting a Product
Cannabis oil/extract, hemp oil/extract, full spectrum hemp extracts, broad spectrum extract, and CBD isolate can all be found in a wide variety of products such as: tinctures, capsules, topicals (lotion/balm), suppositories, edible products, products that can be inhaled. Each consumption method has unique benefits & allows customers to select products based upon unique needs and desires.
The consumption method determines the function of the product. This is true for most products — not just cannabis products! The way that something is consumed does determine the effects it will provide. For example, with sublingual ingestion, cannabinoids are absorbed under the tongue and diffused into the blood, avoiding the “first pass effect”, where the concentration of a “drug” is greatly reduced by metabolization before it reaches systemic circulation. It’s important to understand this about consumption methods because the CBD in your lip balm is not working in the same way a sublingual CBD tincture would.
It’s crucial to for each individual to make an effort to take personal responsibility for understanding dosage and how it applies to their own body. There is not an optimal dosage that applies to everyone; our bodies vary!
Emma Chasen offers an expert recommendation which all consumers should highly consider: “Once you have investigated a company, and you feel confident in their practices and products, begin trying different doses and keeping a consumption journal to track your experience — how it makes you feel physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.”
These personal records act as an incredibly valuable reference, but aren’t definitively accurate, because we consume and are exposed to many things throughout our day, which may cause varying effects. Even our mental state can cause us to perceive a certain effect or lack of effect; this is known as placebo and nocebo.
For novice consumers, it’s best to start with a CBD product with little to no THC; work up to higher doses/varying ratios.
With THC or CBD products, always start with a “tester” dosage (2.5-5 mg) to check for less than positive reactions. When substantial time has lapsed and effects are noted, increase or decrease dosage by 5 mg increments. When consuming products high in THC (which are not hemp products), consider consuming smaller doses throughout the day, rather than one big dose, to maintain ultimate control.
Unfortunately, many companies lack transparency with dosage on their labeling, which is why it’s so crucial to be an educated shopper. Any company with cannabinoids in their products should clearly label them with a total amount (and serving sizes, whenever applicable), in addition to being able to provide test results to support their claims.
“Many hemp-derived CBD companies do not include the mg (milligram) potency of CBD in the entire product and (…) include no way to measure out smaller doses,” Chasen says. “This is unacceptable and leaves consumers incredibly confused about how much product to take. Even if they know their optimal dose, they have no way to measure it if the product does not contain dosing information.”
5. Common Mistakes in Labeling
Being an educated shopper holds immense value when sifting through the terminology that brands use to describe their products. Some terms are being misused entirely, while other terms are non-descriptive and vague. Additionally, many companies cross the line when trying to educate their customers about potential benefits and are making health claims for their products.
Improper Understanding of Ingredients & Associated Benefits
Plenty of labels will use vague phrasing that counts on consumers misunderstanding the variety of compounds that can come from hemp, or hemp’s relationship to cannabis. For example, hempseed oil does not contain cannabinoids such as CBD or THC, though it is rich in nutrients. Before the FDA releases their proposed rules for the legal hemp industry, there is currently little oversight for companies who put a label saying “contains hemp” on a product that has hempseed oil and no cannabinoids.
Misuse of the Term ‘Full Spectrum’
Many products claiming to provide full spectrum benefits and contain zero THC. This simply doesn’t make sense. If the extract originated as a full spectrum oil and the THC was removed, it should be labeled as broad spectrum. Similarly, many products claiming a product will have “full spectrum benefits” from CBD isolate with reintroduced terpenes. These brands are usually attempting to mimic a full spectrum effect, but in the process of isolating a few compounds and patching them back together, a variety of other cannabinoids, terpenes, and compounds are lost. Again, it is possible to call this kind of product “broad spectrum,” but not “full spectrum.”
“Hemp Infused” Confusion
Many products accurately claim to be infused with hemp, but this unfortunately doesn’t describe much about the hemp byproduct used, which leaves customers with room for confusion. For example, a “hemp infused” product containing hemp seed oil does not contain cannabinoids such as CBD or THC, though it is rich in nutrients. While we wait for the FDA to release their proposed rules for the legal hemp industry, in accordance to the new 2018 Farm Bill legislation, there is currently no regulation for companies who are using hemp by products such as hemp seed oil and hemp meal, which contain zero cannabinoids.
Making Health Claims
Health claims are when a manufacturer claims a product will reduce the risk of developing a disease or condition. The FDA has frequently intervened to warn hemp companies against making health claims, and after the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, the FDA’s commissioner again reiterated that the FDA would continue to protect consumers from products that make unfounded health claims.
Emma Chasen elaborates on why this should be avoided: “Never make health claims on packaging. Cannabis and hemp products are not cure-alls and we do not have enough conclusive scientific evidence to make medical claims about their effects. Plus, everyone has their own unique ever changing physiology and endocannabinoid receptor system. Therefore, everyone will respond differently to cannabis and hemp. Do not set up false expectations for consumers by making health claims on packaging.”
VP of Growth & Marketing at Confident Cannabis Brad Bogus adds, “We don’t need to sell magic miracles any further by making spurious health claims on labels. Just be transparent, tell people what is in it, and let them make their decisions informed on just those facts. Until the research is done on a federal level, we cannot responsibly make the claims our industry makes as often as we do.”
6. Marketing & Hype
Our industry is influencing major trends in product production. Be aware of the possibility that a brand name, product name, or imagery (such as a cannabis leaf) could inaccurately imply what the product really is.
It is always smart to check to see if the product even contains any cannabis-derived ingredients. It’s possible the product is simply part of a cannabis-themed collection, similar to a Halloween-themed collection.
Sometimes, companies include the smallest possible amount of an ingredient, and highlight it as if it were the main ingredient. Ingredient lists are inherently arranged in descending order (starting with the ingredient at the highest quantity, ending in the least). Products toward the end of the list have the potential of being present in very minuscule amounts. Literally a singular drop could be added to a massive batch, later to be divided into hundreds or thousands of units, but will still be listed here.
A red flag would be raised if “Hemp Oil” or “Cannabidiol” were to be listed toward the very end of the list, rather than somewhere in the middle. Especially so, if it comes after essential oils, or “fragrance” on the ingredient list. Potency requires scents to be added in incredibly minute amounts.
7. Lab Results, Sourcing & Processing Methods
Despite labeling efforts, the responsibility for validating potency, sourcing, and processing methods, currently lies with the consumer. The FDA may release rules soon for how they will be overseeing hemp products, including new testing and processing requirements, but for now, companies are continuing to operate without oversight.
Finding Information from Brands
Many companies have information about where they source, process, or test their hemp readily accessible on their website. Do a little bit of clicking before sending a message over. If you don’t see any information whatsoever about where the hemp comes from, this is room for further inquiry about sourcing.
Requesting Lab Results & Processing Methods
It is not uncommon for companies to list on their site “ask for lab results”. Go ahead and ask them! Either way, you have a right as a customer to politely reach out and request this information. For example, you can simply send an email saying, “I’ve been considering purchasing your products and would be so grateful if you could provide access to lab results (or information on your processing techniques) to help me make a more informed decision.” If they don’t or are unable to provide it to you, consider briefly letting them know how important having access to that information is to you as a customer.
Analyzing Reliability of Lab Results
Ideally, products will be third-party lab tested, which means OSHA qualified, independent laboratories review and determine the quality of the final product. The tests should be frequent, with one or two tests for each batch of new product. Test results have a batch number/serial number which should be able to match with the packaging.
8. Conclusion: The Takeaways for Companies and Consumers
It’s easy to assume ignorance or intentional deceit as the only culprits for the lack of forthcoming information on hemp products, but thankfully that’s not the case. Many companies wish to be transparent yet are faced with a double edged sword in their decision making.
For example, in some instances, companies fear that making claims with dosage could come back to haunt them. For many, their entire livelihood is at stake. The FDA could potentially pull the company’s product off the shelf entirely if the current amount of CBD does not match what is stated on the label. Differentiation in potency can occur naturally, at no fault to the company. CBD has a molecular half-life. Generally, half-life characterizes any type of exponential or non-exponential decay. When this concept is understood, it’s hard to honestly claim dosage. Even offering a range of potential potency is difficult, because the environmental conditions where a product is stored (by the manufacturer, shipment facility, in transit, or on the shelf) affects the rate of the molecules degradation.
Though this issue is not yet resolved, it would be more honest to state (for example) that 500mg of CBD goes into each unit, rather than implying each unit contains 500mg of CBD, because this is what lab results are actually showing. Instead, labels could read >500mg, to account for the degradation of the molecule. Unfortunately, these proposed solutions don’t offer any further clarity to customers.
And of course, despite the valid risks, it is ultimately a disservice to both the customer and the brand to omit necessary information on labels.
“As nerdy as it sounds, accurate labeling is likely more important than marketing, advertising, PR, or any other external method of attracting new customers,” said Bogus. For example, spending a marketing budget on a mislabeled product could permanently prevent customers from making a purchase from said brand, but, “even worse, it might cause them not to touch cannabis (products) again!”
For consumers, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Your purchases are influencing market trends. Including a small amount of CBD in a product allows the company to significantly increase the retail price, and yes, even make more sales. With this in mind, remember that some products will contain CBD just because it’s what customers are asking for. A product containing cannabinoids is not produced exclusively for medical benefit, which is why it’s so important to have a personal understanding of the variety of products that exist and how to shop for what specifically you’re in search of.
We hope this abundance of information has helped clear up some confusion and enabled a new mindset when shopping for cannabis products. Although this resource is quite thorough, it really only nicks the surface. Our goal is to help our readers stay motivated to learn more, by offering the tools needed to ask the right questions.
We’d love to hear from you! Follow us at @hempmag on Instagram and Facebook and let us know what you learned from this article, or even what this motivated you to learn more about!