Analysing the contents of any food supplement, pharmaceutical product, or agricultural product is fundamental in ensuring the safety of the consumers. Across the globe, there are many regulatory frameworks and compliance measures that must be met before a product can reach the market. Compliance measures include testing for contaminants, potency, and identity checks. Recently, a small molecule found in cannabis plants, CBD, has attracted a lot of attention from retailers due to its wide range of benefits. CBD is widely adopted in beauty products, food supplements, and as an anti-inflammatory agent for sports recovery.
This article will cover recent discoveries and scientific developments with cannabis, with an in-depth coverage of CBD and the importance of third-party testing of cannabis products. Moreover, a list of several European and U.S. testing facilities will also be discussed.
What is CBD?
In drug discovery, many pharmaceutical organisations search for and test naturally-occurring products to find cures to new diseases. Many anticancer drugs and even penicillin, the most critical antibiotic, have been derived from natural products. This means that the natural molecule is studied extensively to determine its necessary components for activity and those sections that can be altered to improve its pharmacokinetic profile.
CBD is one of the >113 molecules naturally produced by the cannabis plant. It is recognised as a cannabinoid, which is a general term used to describe a cannabis-derived molecule. Furthermore, CBD has shown potential therapeutic benefits in treating acne, cancer and even mental conditions. The amount of CBD extracted can vary between different cannabis strains. This is also the main factor that determines the legal framework of cannabis plants that can be domestically cultivated and sold as ‘medical cannabis’. Moreover, another cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been linked to the psychoactive effects, which many stereotypically portray as smoking weed.
Figure 1: The chemical structure of CBD
The history of cannabis
The cannabis plant consists of three subspecies called Cannabaceae sativa, Cannabaceae indica and Cannabaceae ruderalis. As with every organism, cannabis is named using a classification hierarchy, whereby this involves sequentially naming the organism by its “genus” and then “species”.
In this case, the genus is Cannabaceae. Although the three species fall under the same family, they differ anatomically and physiologically as the DNA of each plant, which contributes to its phenotype (physical characteristics), are different.
Cannabis originated from Central Asia, where it was widely used to make fibres, ropes and clothing. More specifically, C. sativa is commonly used in textiles and animal feed (even up to today), whereas the other two species are not due to their less favourable industrial properties. Moreover, the term ‘hemp’ is widely used when referring to a strain of cannabis that has low THC levels (0.2%), as well as high tensile strength fibres that can be used for industrial purposes.
How is CBD sourced?
The primary way cultivators obtain CBD is by growing the cannabis plant until they mature, and then extracting the cannabinoids. However, new methods of producing CBD include utilising greenhouses or synthesising specific cannabinoids using bio-organisms, such as bacteria.
Growing a cannabis plant
Although this is the most common method to extract CBD from the cannabis plant, it is also the most inefficient. A plant grows by performing photosynthesis. This reaction will convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into glucose (a type of sugar), which will then be used for growth and the production of molecules such as cannabinoids. However, this reaction can be severely affected by sunlight, water availability, carbon dioxide levels, temperature and an array of other factors. These factors are often beyond the farmers’ control and therefore, they cannot fully dictate the plant growth. Also, chemical reagents for pest control can be sprayed on the plant. If these pesticides were not tested for and removed during the extraction process, they can be fatal to humans.
For this reason, a greenhouse was developed. This is a controlled and enclosed space where farmers can regulate the abiotic factors using constant electronic monitoring and artificial environmental conditions. In both cases, the samples must be tested by a certified laboratory for traces of mould, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic elements.
Scientists can now genetically alter the genome of an organism. Through genetic engineering, genes (a length of DNA that codes for a protein) can be cut out and inserted into the DNA of another organism. In the case of CBD production, the CBD-producing gene in cannabis plants will be extracted and placed into the genome of an E. coli bacteria. As a result, CBD is produced in bulk by the bacteria and extracted when needed.
This method is incredibly advanced and efficient as only CBD is produced. Also, harmful contaminants such as fertilisers and pesticides are not used, thereby reducing the health risks for consumers.
Emerging research into CBD
Unfortunately, cannabis has been aligned with the stereotypical image of ‘getting high’. Hence, members of the public aren’t fully aware of the medical benefits that this plant brings, nor the fact that most side effects are only associated with THC.
The race to find new treatments that help patients suffering from debilitating diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, has inspired cannabis research. More specifically, multiple clinical trials have tested the efficacy of CBD in alleviating symptoms of pain, inflammation, and tumour metastasis.
In fact, regulatory bodies around the world have taken notice of it and have gone as far as legalising medical cannabis in several countries worldwide.
CBD has a range of uses:
The human body is interconnected through a network of neurons (nerve cells), whereby the central nervous system (CNS) connects the human brain and spinal cord to all effectors and receptors around the body through neurons. An effector is a gland or muscle, and our receptors allow us to feel/sense stimuli and respond to them. Moreover, the brain consists of several lobes, which are involved in mood, cognitive skills and memory. This is connected to another system known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).
The ECS is also a network of receptors that are involved in regulating one’s mood, appetite, cognitive skills, and relaying these individual factors back to the CNS. The principal receptors in the ECS are CB1 and CB2 receptors. Moreover, agonist ligands (i.e. molecules which increase the activity of a receptor) include cannabinoids such as CBD and THC. These molecules are known to interact with the ECS and thus impact an array of factors in the human body, including mood and metabolic activity. A recent paper by Sharma et al. highlighted the potential of CBD to inhibit cancer cell growth by binding to the CB1 receptor in a human patient. Other studies have shed light onto other avenues of controlling cancer growth, activating the immune system, and alleviating pain inflicted from cancer chemotherapy.
Furthermore, a recent article by Alphagreen discussed the emergence of several legal, medical cannabis drugs that can be used to alleviate symptoms of pain, reduce seizures in Alzheimer patients and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Skin Care and Wellness
CBD has also found its way into the wellness industry via skincare products. As CBD has shown potential anti-inflammatory effects, CBD food supplements have been made available for athletes. Moreover, clinical trials have demonstrated the potential of CBD products to limit epidermal skin growth, control acne breakouts. In fact, commercial brands such as Sephora have already adopted this cannabinoid into some of its beauty lines.
Many governing bodies around the world require all consumer products to be tested before it reaches the consumers. Retailers need to use accredited third-party facilities that have a range of analytical testing instruments and have demonstrated their competence. Moreover, having a CBD product tested ensures that the product abides by the governing law in that country.
A wide profile of tests is conducted on every sample. These include heavy metal testing, pesticide concentration evaluation and measuring the potency of THC levels.
Industrial plants and textiles can lead to unwanted metals within cultivated soil. Moreover, the bioaccumulation of heavy metals amongst any food chain can be toxic. Therefore, it is essential to minimise human contact with such contaminants whenever possible, as exposure to unwantedly high levels of metals can lead to cancer and fertility issues.
Residual solvents include organic solvents that can be present in large quantities when CBD is concentrated from the cannabis plant. It is essential that these solvents, such as benzene and toluene, are removed.
Given that farmers regularly grow plants, they will also use pesticide sprays to maximise crop yield and strengthen pest control. However, pesticides, such as DTT, have also been shown to bioaccumulate within food chains. If this was not controlled, pesticides can also have mutagenic effects and harm consumers.
Cannabis buds can contain low levels of moisture. If not adequately stored, fungal growth can be promoted, and the subsequent production of harmful mycotoxins can occur. Therefore, the Cannabis Safety Institute has recommended that cannabis-based products should be tested. Also, microbe growth can be promoted by the accumulation of persistent organic pollutants and plastics, so it is also essential to check for these too.
Terpenes are a group of organic molecules that contain an aromatic functional group. These molecules are produced naturally in trichomes of the cannabis plant. They give rise to the distinct colours and smells such as pine, berry and fruity citrus aromas. Although these molecules are not harmful, profiling can be necessary when you are evaluating the ingredients of your CBD product before purchasing.
THC is a cannabinoid that leads to psychoactive effects, whereby the cannabis stereotype of ‘getting high’ recreationally is associated with this cannabinoid. Hence, it is crucial to test the potency of the cannabinoids present in your sample to meet regulatory compliance. In particular, THC levels higher than 0.1 mg are prohibited. In addition, potency checks are essential to provide an in-depth overview of the ingredients in your product in order for the consumer to understand the product that they are buying.
Types of third-party analytical tests
A certificate of analysis (COA) is a fundamental qualification for a testing facility to have as it ensures full compliance with regulations. Given that there are no specific testing standards or testing instruments when it comes to cannabis, a COA will also provide confidence to a retailer as it ensures consistent chemical analyses are met.
It is important to note that Alphagreen lists CBD-based products that have a COA. Some of the tests that a lab might conduct are as follows:
This analytical technique involves the identity testing of a sample. In essence, a mass spectrometer will undergo a series of steps to identify the components in a sample. This includes vaporisation, ionisation, acceleration, deflection, and detection. There are many different types of mass spectrometry instruments. However, they each achieve the same goal.
After the initial vaporisation of the sample, it is bombarded with high energy electrons which lead to its respective ionisation. The ions are then accelerated in an electric field and deflected by a magnetic field to reach the detector. The detector will then provide a graphical chart of peaks against the mass of the ions that it detects.
This technique will assess the amount of moisture in a sample which could eventually lead to fungal growth, whereby the sample is slowly dried over time, and any changes in mass are recorded.
In essence, no change in weight suggests that no water is present (no water evaporating off the sample). Thus, there will be no required concern for microbes.
High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)
This chromatographic technique can separate different molecules, such as cannabinoids, by exploiting the different polarities that these molecules possess. In essence, this chromatographic technique works by utilising a stationary phase (polar silica beads) and a mobile aspect (a non-polar organic solvent). Every molecule will have a certain level of polarity, and this will determine the extent to which they are attracted to either phase. HPLC will measure the retention time (i.e. how long it takes for the molecule to pass through the instrument). The retention time is unique for every molecule with a given stationary and mobile phase.
HPLC can be thus used for identity testing and plays a fundamental role in identifying THC and other cannabinoids.
Gas Chromatography (GC)
This technique is similar to HPLC in that the retention time of the sample is recorded. However, the sample is vaporised and pushed along by a carrier gas (mobile phase nitrogen gas) over the stationary phase (usually a solid).
Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS)
This type of testing looks for heavy metals in a sample. A sample is placed in an argon aerosol, and the material splits and ionises. These ions are then carried towards a mass spectrometer, where they are detected according to their mass-to-charge ratio.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)
PCR is used to identify and quantify the number of microbes that could be present in a sample. In retrospect, PCR entails a series of steps that involves extracting the microbe’s DNA. The final amplified DNA is then separated by gel electrophoresis, which allows each microbe DNA to be identified. In this case, the amount of each microbe is proportional to the fluorescence of each sample.
Here Alphagreen has highlighted several testing facilities in Europe and the U.S. A brief overview, and the types of contaminants that they look out for.
BSCG is a certified laboratory that ensures that all testing facilities follow good manufacturing practices. BSCG is certified to test animals, drugs, and ingredients too. Moreover, a complete assessment of CBD, THC and hemp products are covered in their cannabis plant testing. The series of tests conducted include cannabinoid levels, pesticides, residual solvents, and heavy metals.
Eurofins is a large conglomerate that offers a full suite of services, which include genomic sequencing, food analysis and consultancy services (audit, on-site solutions, product design and R&D). Also, Eurofins provide a complete assessment of CBD and hemp products: THC/CBD levels, heavy metals, pesticides, organic toxins, and terpene profiling. In addition, Eurofins’s facilities have state-of-the-art testing instruments that also allow complementary services covering sex determination, and infrared imaging of crops to identify hotspots.
Infrared imaging is an advanced analytical technique that can identify different bonds in a molecule. This is important as it can identify key functional groups that are unique to a particular molecule, such as CBD.
British Cannabis, 160 City Road, London, EC12NX
British Cannabis is the largest supplier of EU cannabis medicines and is registered with the Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Apart from its skilled testing facilities that can “add or remove any compound at a molecular level”, white-label, private label and therapeutic-grade CBD are some of the other services offered. The contaminants that can be tested for include THC/CBD levels, heavy metals, pesticides, organic toxins, and terpene profiling.
Fundación CANNA, World Trade Center, Edificio Sur, 2e planta, Muelle de Barcelona
This certified laboratory only focuses on examining cannabis; with the main focus on the physiological effects of cannabinoids on the human body. Moreover, Fundación Canna only offers services to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and companies within the cannabis industry. A list of contaminants that they test for include: cannabinoid potency, pesticides, terpenes, heavy metals and organic toxins.
Pharma Hemp Laboratories, Cesta v Gorice 8, 1000, Slovenia, Ljubljana
Pharma Hemp provides a range of CBD testing facilities, with a focus on cannabinoid profiling by HPLC analysis.
Desert Valley Testing, 51 W Weldon Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85013
This certified lab offers a suite of CBD testing facilities, which can be found on their website. A list of tests that they conduct includes cannabinoid potency, heavy metals, residual solvents, pesticides and organic toxins. Desert Valley Testing also utilises the most advanced instruments for their tests.
JHG Analytical Services, unit 9 Airside, Gulf Stream Avenue, Airport Business Park, Waterford, Ireland
JHG Analytical Testing has over 33 years of experience in the field of facility testing for Environmental, Petrochemical and Agricultural products. However, the lab is limited in the services that it offers; cannabinoid profiling and terpene profiling are the only tests available.
Phytatech, 879 Federal Blvd, Denver, CO 80204
Phytatech is an accredited lab that has partnered with other members of the industry to provide advanced testing. Cannabinoid profiles, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents and terpene profiling are all offered.
Photovista Lab, Stubb’s Ln, Beckington, BA11 6TE
Photovista promises extremely fast testing turnaround times in comparison to other testing laboratories found in the U.S. Moreover, Photovista offers product auditing for both manufacturers and consumers of the cannabis supply chain. Pesticides, organic toxins, residual solvents, terpenes and cannabinoid potency are all provided in their service.
This French laboratory mainly focuses on e-liquids containing CBD oils. Although Leaf Laboratoire will analyse cannabinoid potency, microbe growth and other contaminants, they also offer tobacco testing in e-liquids.
Infinite Chemical, 8380 Miramar Mall #102, San Diego, 92121
Infinite Chemical has a number of accreditations and acts as a significant testing facility for CBD products. Aside from the routine contaminant testing, Infinite Chemical can also provide an accurate analysis of vitamin E acetate concentrations as well as water activity in cannabis products.
Although the CBD industry is in its early stages, there is an emerging trend backed by clinical data that supports the vast benefits that CBD products can bring to everyday life. From alleviating the symptoms of debilitating diseases to providing faster muscle recovery for the physically active, these plant-based products are seeing a massive amount of attention.
However, it is critical that suppliers and retailers properly vet their products by certified laboratories to prevent the risk of harming their consumers and to comply with regulatory frameworks within that country. It is clear that there is a range of possible toxins that can sneak into any cannabis product. Thus, ensuring the retail of consistently safe products is necessary for this growing yet niche industry.
Alphagreen does precisely this and ensures that of our listed products are examined by accredited, fully compliant facilities.
Verified by a Healthcare Professional
Anastasiia Myronenko is a Medical Physicist actively practicing in one of the leading cancer centers in Kyiv, Ukraine. She received her master’s degree in Medical Physics at Karazin Kharkiv National University and completed Biological Physics internship at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, Germany. Anastasiia Myronenko specializes in radiation therapy and is a fellow of Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists.
This article includes the promotion of products and services sold on Alphagreen and affiliate links to other businesses.
Alphagreen and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. The information and products presented on this site are not intended for medical use nor do they make any medical claims. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a pre-existing medical condition, are pregnant and/or are breastfeeding, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or another health-related program.
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