The Final Question You Have To Ask Before Buying CBD
So, you are sitting and staring at a COA from a manufacturer of CBD products. Maybe you are on their website and are about to purchase one of their products… Or maybe you have already purchased the product at your local store and decided to find out if you got what you paid for…
In either case, the first step is to look at the COA as a whole and decide if you should trust it. In my previous post, I talked about the process I use to make this decision (What is a COA?: 4 key things to look for on a COA). If you have decided that the COA itself is trustworthy, the next step is to decide if the COA represents the product…
Unfortunately, most consumers don’t ask the correct questions when they look at a COA. This often comes from a lack of familiarity with the document and how it relates to the product, and often from an acceptance of the COA because it looks official. Just because a COA is accurate, complete, recent, unaltered, and from a reputable lab doesn't mean that the manufacturer is using it honestly.
Taken in this context, our question becomes: Is the manufacturer trustworthy?
This really is a question you should be asking before you purchase any CBD product. In my opinion, it is The Question.
By the end of this post you should:
- Have a basic understanding of what the specific test results on the COA mean
- Understand how test results relate to the claims that the manufacturer is making.
- Know how to “Interpret between the lines” to decide if a manufacturer is worthy of your trust (and your business).
- Potency - What does the cannabinoid profile of the product look like? How much of each cannabinoid is present? Although there are more than 100 cannabinoids, most labs test for just slightly more than a dozen of the most prevalent. Each of these compounds has biological and health implications that we are just beginning to understand. The effect of any given CBD product depends not only on individual biochemistry, but also on the overall mix of these cannabinoids. A product containing a sole cannabinoid (such as CBD) is very different from a product containing a natural blend of cannabinoids.
- Pesticides - Virtually all agricultural products produced on large (mono-culture) farms have pesticides applied to them at some point in their production. There are several things you can do to limit your exposure to pesticides, including buying from USDA Certified Organic farms and buying from ecologically diverse smaller farms. Whether you are buying Organic CBD products or not, always insist on pesticide testing. These tests screen for upwards of 60 common toxins. Pesticide tests help to determine both if prohibited substances were used, and if allowed pesticides were used in a prohibited manner.
- Heavy Metals - Heavy metals are toxic contaminants that can find their way into CBD products through the use of chemical fertilizers and farming in contaminated soil. Unfortunately hemp plants are extremely adept (https://medium.com/@ministryofhemp/hemp-bioremediation-the-miracle-crop-that-actually-cleans-soil-97a7a654991f) at removing and concentrating heavy metals, particularly in the flowering portions of the plant. During the extraction process, these toxins are concentrated further and are dangerous when inhaled or ingested.
- Residual Solvents - Cannabis is extracted through the use of solvents such as ethanol, butane, CO2, hexane and others. Because it can be very difficult to entirely remove the solvent residue from an extract, it is important to know what solvents were used in manufacturing a product, and to know what residual amounts are present. A Residual Solvent Test is one means of detecting trace solvent contamination from 30 different common solvents that some manufacturers use in extraction.
The COA Results
Broadly speaking, a “COA” provided by a manufacturer for any manufactured hemp product should be made up of multiple COAs, each of which will contain results for several different specific tests that were performed on a sample taken at a given point in the manufacturing process.
At a minimum, every manufacturer should have three COAs that are associated with any given product: intake, extract, and product. Seldom will they post all three, but at least two should be available on their website. If they aren't… ask yourself why?
- An Intake COA - When the manufacturer purchases CBD containing material there will always be a COA. Regardless whether the material is plant matter, a raw extract, a refined extract, or isolate… they will always test it. This is how they know what they are paying for. This COA will always have results for potency. It should also have results for pesticide and heavy metal contamination. While this COA isn't critical, it does provide some information.
- An Extract COA - At some point in the manufacturing process, hemp material is extracted, concentrated, and refined into an ingredient for the formulation of the finished product. At the end of this process, the extract will always be tested so that the manufacturer is able to accurately formulate their product. This COA will always include potency, and should include testing for pesticide and heavy metal contaminants, as well as residual solvents. You always want to see this COA, in its entirety, including testing for contaminants.
- A Product COA - Whatever goes out the door should be tested too. Most manufacturers will test for potency, and some will also test for contaminants (pesticides, heavy metals, and solvents) as well. This is the COA most commonly provided by manufacturers. You will want to see this COA as well.
A manufacturer that is testing adequately will usually have more than these three for any given product batch, but these are the three that we are interested in.
The Intake and Extract COAs
Sometimes, the intake and extract COAs are the same if the manufacturer purchases the CBD material in the form that is used as an ingredient. Often these COA’s will apply to multiple product batches, so the sample names may not match the Batch ID on the product. This is normal, and simply means that the extraction batch made enough material for several product batches.
The Intake COA isn't critical, but it provides a glimpse into the materials and processes that are used by the manufacturer. This is much more important if you are purchasing full spectrum products.
- How high quality is the material? Plant material with potency well into the single digits is poor quality. As is an extract under 60% total cannabinoids. Poor quality input material may indicate a manufacturer is cutting corners, and bargain shopping for material.
- Low quality inputs don’t necessarily mean bad products. However, low quality material tends to have a narrower cannabinoid profile (less entourage effect).
- Bargain shopping for material also may indicate that the source material will change from batch to batch (whatever is cheapest), and this may lead to inconsistent results for the consumer (caused by variation in cannabinoid profile).
The Extract COA is arguably the most important COA for you to see, and is seldom provided by the manufacturer. As hemp material is extracted and the cannabinoids are concentrated, contaminants are concentrated as well. This makes the Extract COA the only COA for accurately detecting heavy metals, pesticides, and solvents.
- What contaminants are present in the sample? And at what level? Did the sample just “pass” or is it “non-detect”? Are you comfortable with a lab determining what a “passing” level of contamination is for you?
- I firmly believe that there is absolutely no acceptable level for pesticides, heavy metals, or organic solvents in any CBD product I would consume. That is why I want to see these results in a COA of the Extract. These same tests are fairly meaningless on a finished product after the extract is diluted by as much as 1000x (or more).
- How complete is the cannabinoid profile? Just as contaminants are diluted in a finished product, so too are cannabinoids. This is the best time to look at the levels of the minor cannabinoids: before they are diluted below levels where they can be accurately measured. While I wouldn't obsess over the actual levels of the minors, make sure they are present.
The Product COA
The COA for the finished product is the only COA that most manufacturers provide. In many cases, it only includes a test for finished potency. Manufacturers often only provide a single page with potency results because this is the only test most consumers know to look for. Most consumers, if they look for a COA at all, just want to make sure they got what they paid for.
- What is the tested potency? Does this accurately reflect the manufacturer label claim?
- A liquid product should be in mg/ml. If it is mg/gram, or as a percentage of weight, you will need to convert. This isn't a huge problem, but it requires you to know the density of the material. Dont assume that one gram equals one milliliter unless the product is water based. For example, 1ml of MCT oil is around 0.93 grams.
- Manufacturers that do provide contaminant testing results typically provide these results for the finished product. This provides very little information for the consumer, and allows manufacturers to severely dilute their product before testing for pesticides, heavy metals, and harmful solvents.
- The reality is that contaminant testing on a finished product serves only to show that contaminants were not introduced into the product during formulation. These results tell you little to nothing about contamination in the least regulated ingredient, which is most likely to be contaminated: the CBD source material.
Interpreting Between the Lines
Here is where you decide if the manufacturer is trustworthy or not. You have a product and a “matching” COA from the manufacturer’s website.
- Does the product match the COA? The lot number, manufacture date, and product type listed on the COA should match the product.
- Are all COA’s presented as a complete document? If you are only getting a single page, ask yourself “why?”
- Is the COA easy to locate on the website? You shouldn’t have to hunt for the COA or request it from the manufacturer. If it isn't easy to find, ask yourself “why?”
- Does the manufacturer provide an extract COA that includes contaminant testing? If not, again you should be asking “why?”
- Does the manufacturer provide a finished product COA for potency? Does this potency test match (within +/- 10%) the manufacturer’s content claims for the product?
In the example below, a manufacturer website is claiming 1700 mg of full spectrum cannabinoids, 500mg of which is CBD. What is the other 1200mg? If CBD is not the most prevalent cannabinoid, why aren't they listing whatever is?
This alone should concern you… But, if you look at the COA (below), where are the other cannabinoids? It contains slightly more than the listed amount of CBD, but only 537mg of total cannabinoids, yet this product website claims 1700mg and the product package has a bold “1700” on it.
Does the potency test provided by the manufacturer support any claims as to “full spectrum” or “broad spectrum”? Many products labeled as Full Spectrum are being made with isolates. The test results above seem to be full spectrum, though they greatly exaggerate their total cannabinoid content. On the other hand, the test results shown below, are clearly isolate despite the fact they are from a product labelled “full spectrum.”
So, back to The Question: Is the manufacturer trustworthy?
Don't automatically assume the answer is yes. Trust must be earned. It should be the job of any manufacturer to earn your trust, and this is especially true in the CBD industry.
It's up to you, but I think a good start towards earning your trust should include:
- Honesty and transparency
- Accurate labelling
- Thorough and meaningful independent testing