What's In Your CBD?

CBD oil, gummies, tinctures, tonics, and even snacks and beauty products have taken over the world. A year ago, everyone wanted to know what this new herbal medicine was; now CBD is so ubiquitous that you can pick it up at 7-11. But learning how to choose the best CBD oil is still more of a challenge than you’d think. 

We believe in the timeless power of cannabinoids, of course. And whether you buy your CBD oil from us or from the gas station, we want to make sure you get those amazing benefits everyone is raving about.

Although CBD may come in tidy, “medical-esque” bottles and boxes, with respectable-looking packaging, the industry as a whole is still the Wild West. Government regulation is very limited. And CBD itself is considered safe and well-tolerated by the vast majority of people, but how it’s grown, how it’s processed, and how it’s packaged matter very much to your wellbeing. 

It’s unlikely that a CBD product you buy in a store will harm you immediately. However, human health is holistic, longterm, and interconnected with the health of the planet on which we all depend. What’s in your CBD matters.

So before you shop, consider asking yourself the following questions.

How was it grown?

CBD comes from hemp, a remarkable plant that has many applications towards vibrant wellbeing. Since the Farm Bill passed in the US in 2018, hemp cultivation has become a major moneymaker for many farms, large and small – most of which are growing crops for the CBD market. But even though CBD is a “health supplement”, that doesn’t ensure that it’s farmed in a healthy way – for you or the earth.

The key issue is a phenomenon called bioaccumulation. It’s complicated, but in a nutshell, anytime an organism absorbs a substance faster than it can be processed or excreted, the substance accumulates in the body of the organism – whether it’s an animal or a plant. You may have heard warnings about mercury in fish, for instance. That form of bioaccumulation happens because fish that are higher on the food chain, like tuna or swordfish, eat lots of little fish, and the small amounts of mercury in the bigger fish’s prey build up in the flesh you eat.

A similar process happens with certain plants, including hemp. If there are toxins in the soil, like pesticides, the plant absorbs them alongside the nutrients it needs to grow and survive. The substances then accumulate – so when you consume the plant, you’re also getting residue of whatever was put on it. In the case of hemp, those toxins are further concentrated when the CBD is extracted. 

This is why it’s absolutely essential to only buy organic CBD. If pesticides and other chemicals were used on the plants, they will end up on or in your body. Many brands go to great lengths to disguise the fact that their hemp extract isn’t organic. Hold them to account, and make sure your CBD was grown without pesticides. 

And if it was farmed according to regenerative principles, so much the better. It’s long past time for humans to move past the old ways, and start treating the health of the earth with the same consideration that we apply to our own health. Destructive agricultural practices are hurting the only planet we’ve got. Buying organic isn’t just about us – it’s about the very future of life as we know it.

Also, you may have heard the term “single-origin” mentioned on plant-based products – often coffee, chocolate, or spices. This means the plant ingredient was derived from one farm, or an interconnected collective of farms. Many companies buy bulk CBD that comes from farms all over the country, all mixed together – so it’s harder to trace. Buying single-origin is a good way to ensure accountability from brands and producers. 

Is this even CBD?

“Organic” and “single-origin” don’t mean much if what you’re buying isn’t even CBD – which is more common than you’d think. Some retailers, like Amazon, have elected not to sell CBD at all. That doesn’t stop dishonest companies from selling products that look like CBD, to snare unwitting customers. Search “CBD” on Amazon and you’re likely to find dozens of products labeled as “hemp oil” or “hempseed oil”. It sounds like it should be CBD – but it isn’t.

Hemp seeds are an excellent source of essential amino acids and polyunsaturated fats. Often called a “superfood”, hempseed oil is one of the healthiest, most nutritious fats you can buy, and may also benefit hair and skin when applied topically. It’s made by cleaning and pressing the hemp seeds, like any seed or nut oil. It’s also legal and available everywhere.

However, hempseed oil does not contain CBD. The hemp plant concentrates CBD in its leaves and flowers, not in its seeds. 

If you look more closely at those Amazon listings, the product ingredients and descriptions don’t mention CBD anywhere, or mention it in very ambiguous words. This is because they’re actually hempseed oil, or hempseed oil mixed with something else. The product probably won’t hurt you – and again, hempseed oil is a good product with some benefits – but if you’re looking for the wellness advantages provided by CBD, you’ll be disappointed. 

For this reason, it’s recommended that you buy directly from retailers and manufacturers that are explicit about what their products contain.

So you’ve looked out for misleading advertising, and ensured that the product you’re looking to buy is actually CBD. Now what?

Unfortunately, you’re still not out of the woods. The FDA reports that when they’ve spot-tested many batches of commercial CBD products, they’ve found that the products don’t contain nearly as much CBD as they claim on the label – sometimes hardly any at all. This is one of the side effects of a largely unregulated market. Companies can put products on the shelves with little accountability. In this case, if you’re looking for real benefits, you’ve wasted your money. Since CBD isn’t cheap, sometimes that’s a lot of money. 

Another problem to watch for has to do with the ambiguity of the phrase “hemp extract”. If a bottle says it contains 1000mg of hemp extract, does that mean it has 1000mg of CBD? Maybe, maybe not. “Hemp extract” is the total volume of the material extracted from the plant; CBD is a substance within that extract. And that percentage can vary wildly.

And since CBD is minimally regulated, you don’t necessarily know whether it’s being processed in a nice clean lab facility, or in someone’s basement on a Bunsen burner. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to determine this – look for Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) certification, provided by the FDA. This will ensure the necessary oversight, to help keep you safe and confident in your purchase.

You can always ensure that your CBD is real, and it’s as potent as it claims to be, by looking for a third-party Certificate of Analysis. This is a sheet of information that a reputable company will provide, either on their website or by request. More on COAs in a minute!

Is it broad-spectrum, full-spectrum or isolate?

We wrote a whole blog post about this subject. If you’re thinking that means it must be pretty deep, you’re absolutely right! However, the shorthand is that a narrow definition of “purity” may not serve you well when buying CBD. Purity is great when it means that your product is free of contaminants, and grown via a clean process – but “pure CBD” may not be as effective as you might hope. 

You may see “CBD isolate” on packaging. This means that it’s just the single cannabinoid, all by itself. Isolate is often used in food and drinks, so the manufacturer can stir a powder into the formula and then charge a hefty markup.

The problem is that CBD works much better alongside its cohort of terpenes, other cannabinoids, and other natural substances that exist in the hemp plant. CBD can be isolated – but it gets lonely!

Most people will probably want to look for broad-spectrum CBD. It’ll contain all those other friendly plant compounds that give CBD its beneficial oomph. 

You may also see “full-spectrum” on CBD labels – another peril of an unregulated market is that there’s no real standard for consistent terms. Although some companies use it as a synonym for broad-spectrum, technically full-spectrum means that the product will contain a small amount of THC. This can be incredibly effective, particularly for pain relief. It also may make the product slightly psychoactive, and if you use it, you might fail a drug test. 

When in doubt, go broad-spectrum – for the best benefits, and for avoiding surprises.

What else is in it?

It’s very unlikely that your CBD will come all by itself. At minimum, it’ll probably be sold in a carrier oil, like coconut or olive. Or it may be a component of a larger formula – plant-based or not. 

Because CBD is a “natural health product”, it might be easy to assume that its presence means the whole product is healthy and good for you. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If the product contains other plant materials – which it will, in the case of most CBD oils – it’s important to check that the other ingredients are also organic, as explained above, for the same reasons. Paying for organic hemp extract won’t do you much good if the carrier oil isn’t organic, or if other plant-based ingredients aren’t, or if there’s a bunch of other, unpronounceable chemistry-set stuff in there. 

A word on “nano” CBD. This is a huge biohacker trend, and simply put, it’s CBD oil treated so it absorbs very quickly. This sounds pretty good! Unfortunately, producing nano CBD often uses a lot of other chemicals, including propylene glycol, which has been the subject of unpleasant headlines recently. You can achieve similar results by looking for CBD delivered in MCT oil, which absorbs quickly and naturally without intervention. See our blog on the subject for more details. 

Always get receipts.

We don’t mean the receipt from your purchase – though you should keep that too! We’re using “receipts” in the colloquial sense – proven, public accountability from the people who make the products you put in your body.

This means always, always looking for a Certificate of Analysis when you buy CBD. Always, no matter what. A reputable company will provide COAs on their website, or make them available upon request via email, for every batch of product they make. 

COAs can be a little tricky to read; they may look like technical alphabet soup at first glance. But it’s worth learning how to decipher them, because a proper COA will show test results for everything you might care about when it comes to CBD, from potency, to authenticity, to the presence of heavy metals and microbes, to whether any THC has snuck in to get you fired from your job. They’re essential. And you can learn a lot about a company if they don’t provide a COA, or make it difficult to see one. 

We wish shopping for cannabinoids wasn’t so confusing. (And we wish COAs were available for everything we buy!) But once you know what to look for, it gets a lot easier – and you can be sure that what you’re taking is good for you, and good for everyone.

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