CBD products are everywhere, in pharmacies, gas stations, grocery stores, and, of course, from an array of online merchants. With CBD promising a myriad of health and wellness benefits, the demand for the substance is skyrocketing, and the CBD industry is expanding at a rapid rate.
CBD hemp oil was legalized in the U.S. in 2014. In 2015, CBD products accounted for $202 million in sales. By 2022, that figure is expected to be $22 billion. Yes. Billion.
The popularity of CBD, or Cannabidiol, has drawn the previously neglected hemp plant from which is extracted into the spotlight.
Hemp wasn’t always neglected in the U.S. The Founding Fathers were big fans of the plant, and American farmers were actually required by law to grow it. It’s believed that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence – or at least, the first draft of it – on paper made from hemp. Abe Lincoln used hemp seed oil in his household lamps, so he could stay up late reading.
However, an anti-drug movement caused hemp to lose favor in the U.S. It was classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which put it in the same prohibited category as marijuana, heroin, and LSD. As a result, U.S. farmers stopped growing it in 1957 (it continued to be legally grown in many other countries).
Hemp is now back in American farm fields. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill (more on that later), hemp cultivation was restored to legal status in the U.S.
Stateside farmers have been increasingly turning to it as a promising cash crop, and a burgeoning number of retail businesses across the country are selling products with CBD derived from hemp – as well as the raw hemp flower, or hemp bud, itself.
As with any relatively new industry, hemp and CBD are experiencing some growing pains, in the form of quality control issues. While most manufacturers use filtered oil that has undergone decarboxylation and filtering processes to remove impurities, contamination has reared its ugly head in some product lines.
How can you Make Sure that the Products you use are Free of Contaminants?
1. Be Aware of How Contamination of Hemp and CBD Products Occurs
Contamination can occur during both the hemp growth cycle and the process of extracting CBD from the plant. Cannabis and hemp plants are what is known as “hyperaccumulators.” This type of plant is great for cleaning up polluted soil because its roots are very efficient at absorbing toxins from the soil and air. Those toxins are then concentrated at extremely high levels in the plant’s tissues.
However, if hemp – a hyperaccumulator – is grown in pesticide- or herbicide-saturated soil, those substances can end up in the CBD products made from that hemp. That can pose health threats to users, especially long-term ones who suffer from certain medical conditions. Heavy metals, for instance, can accumulate in the body over time and cause a whole host of problems.
Contamination can also occur when CBD is extracted from hemp. Although there are nontoxic substances available for use in extraction, like CO2 and olive oil, some companies use solvents such as ethanol, butane, propane, isopropyl, or alcohol during the extraction process. These residual solvents must be removed during the production process so that consumers will not be exposed to them.
2. Stay Up-to-Date about CBD Quality and Data
In the absence of industry-wide data, or the kinds of enforcement statistics that would accompany enforcement actions by regulatory agencies, it’s hard to determine the severity of the contamination problem in CBD products.
Make sure you visit the FDA’s Consumer Updates web page about products that contain cannabis or compounds derived from cannabis, like CBD. Bookmark the page and check back regularly to see if new studies or reviews have been conducted.
With consumers eagerly embracing CBD, various media outlets have recognized this as a hot topic and have tried to examine quality control issues within the industry.
NBC 4 New York, for instance, had a random selection of CBD oils tested by independent laboratories. One of five samples contained lead, while another contained pesticides that exceeded California’s acceptable standards. This was obviously a very small sample, so it would be unwise to conclude that 40 percent of CBD products are corrupted.
A 2019 report from CBS/WJLA on testing conducted on 300 best-selling CBD products was more extensive – and more alarming. High levels of pesticides, herbicides like glyphosate (an ingredient in the weedkiller RoundUp), mold, and heavy metals were found in many products.
3. Buy from Companies Who Use Sustainably Grown Hemp
As noted, one of the ways products made from hemp can be contaminated is if the hemp is grown using pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.
As one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, hemp is ideal for sustainable farming practices. It requires very little water or fertilizer. It is resistant to pests and diseases, so pesticides and herbicides are rarely necessary. Furthermore, hemp benefits the soil it’s planted in because its fallen leaves return minerals and nitrogen to the soil.
Hemp thrives in well-drained soils that are high in organic matter. Weed control may be an issue (although some argue that hemp grows so quickly and so tall that it “outcompetes” weeds). According to Michigan State University Extension, weeds can be managed by planting in fields without a history of problematic weeds, rotating crops, using the right cultivation tools and cleaning equipment before entering a field.
Organic farming is, of course, beneficial for both the crop and the environment. When possible, opt for companies that use hemp that’s been certified organic. The USDA allows hemp to be certified organic in the states where it is legally grown. In Europe, organic hemp farmers must comply with European Union (EU) regulations, which are more stringent than U.S. organic standards.
Since being declassified as a controlled substance by the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act (Farm Bill), and with many states implementing the permitting program required by the federal government, hemp is an increasingly popular crop for U.S. farmers to grow.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates an enormous increase in the number of acres of hemp planted by U.S. farmers, from 27,424 acres in August 2018 to 128,320 acres in August 2019. While hemp has long been in demand for industrial uses, its use in CBD and the tremendous growth of the CBD market is motivating more U.S. farmers to turn to hemp as a cash crop.
Hemp was already being widely grown in many other countries, including China, North Korea, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other Scandinavian countries.
Hemp’s suitability as a sustainable crop forms the basis of the Hemp Pledge, which the National Hemp Association asks its members to sign. The pledge reads, in part: “I recognize the responsibility to shift global priorities away from nonrenewable materials and practices, acknowledging that hemp represents one of our best opportunities to achieve green agricultural and manufacturing solutions without sacrificing cost or quality.”
4. Buy from a Reputable Source
With new CBD companies springing into existence every day, it can be difficult for consumers to know which ones are offering safe, high-quality products.
Taking a “farm-to-shelf” approach when it comes to selecting products can be helpful. How the hemp used for CBD is grown is as important as how the product is manufactured. Information that should be readily available to consumers includes:
- Was the hemp crop USDA Organic Certified?
- Was the product tested by an independent, third-party laboratory throughout the manufacturing process?
- Is the company third-party GMP (good manufacturing practice) certified?
- Is manufacturing taking place in an FDA-registered facility?
- How long has the company been in business?
- How was the CBD extracted from the hemp? Were solvents used?
This may sound like a lot of information. A great deal of it can be found on a company’s website. In fact, companies who are willing to be very transparent about the growers they use and the way they manufacture products are the ones that should earn your trust.
5. Check the Test Results
Although there’s no federal regulation requiring independent laboratory testing of CBD products, most reputable manufacturers have their products tested. Investing in this kind of third-party evaluation serves two purposes; it gives customers tangible evidence that products are of high quality, and it helps the company confirm that its quality assurance processes are working.
The easiest way for you to determine if the product you’re about to buy has been tested is with a visit to the company’s website. If you see a Certificate of Analysis (COA) displayed there, you’ll be able to check the test results, such as whether a product contains contaminants, residual solvents, or pesticides. Additionally, the FDA currently recommends that cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury be analyzed in all drug products.
A COA is a document issued by Quality Assurance that confirms that a product meets certain specifications. It proves that the product has been tested by a third-party, independent lab. Want to do a deeper dive? Ask the company to provide you with the COA for the specific batch number of the product you have. You can find the batch number on the product label.
A section of the COA entitled “Microbiological Testing” will reveal whether or not there was mold or bacteria in the hemp used in a CBD product.
An easy way to access a COA on a website is to use the QR code that should be on the product label. Just hover over it (with an iPhone camera app) or use a QR code scanner (with an Android phone). Most reputable companies now include a QR code on product labels.
If a company does not have a COA on its website or is not willing to provide you with one through customer service, it’s best to seek out another brand. The same is true if the company has only done in-house testing.