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Encouraging Transparency in the Hemp CBD Product Industry

By Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director, Center for Food Safety

March 01, 2020
Center for Food Safety

Encouraging Transparency in the Hemp CBD Product Industry

Center for Food Safety's updated Hemp CBD Scorecard evaluates many of the top hemp CBD producers on their production methods, testing protocols, and transparency to consumers.

Americans' interest in hemp CBD products has reached an all-time high. The recent federal legalization of the growing of hemp, combined with some level of cannabis legalization in 33 states, has led to an explosion of personal care products and supplements such as oils, tinctures, capsules, and body lotions containing cannabidiol—better known as CBD—which is derived from hemp and sold everywhere from trendy pop-ups to grocery stores to pharmacies.

As with most supplements, hemp CBD products are minimally regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, this new industry is a bit like the "wild west," in terms of how products are produced, processed, and advertised to consumers. Hemp CBD products are everywhere. But are they safe?

CBD is one of the naturally occurring, non-psychoactive cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, specifically within the hemp plant. Hemp is different than marijuana in that it has less than 0.3% of the psychoactive chemical compound, THC, and therefore cannot get you "high." CBD has become popular for its purported ability to help reduce pain and anxiety, which has led to huge growth in the market for products containing CBD. Some go so far as to tout CBD products as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

Although producers of hemp CBD products cannot advertise their products as having these health benefits (which is one area where FDA actually does step in), many producers are not adequately providing information about their products to the public. According to an updated Center for Food Safety (CFS) report that evaluated select CBD producers, companies are moving toward increased transparency about how their products are produced—including posting test results for pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants on their websites—which is an important step in the right direction, underscoring the importance of consumer advocacy and independent review of these products by organizations like CFS.

Why Be Concerned?

While there are currently only a few pesticides that are federally registered for use on hemp, growers may be using other pesticides—such as glyphosate—illegally in order to eradicate weed seed in the field prior to planting, or they may be using fungicides in order to kill mildew and fungus.

Perhaps even more significantly, hemp is a known bioremediator, meaning it can break down hazardous substances found in soil, such as heavy metals like lead and arsenic, pesticides, or oil. These dangerous substances can end up in the hemp plant and the oils extracted from the plant for use in CBD products.

There are also potential concerns with how CBD oil is extracted from the hemp plant. Liquid solvents such as ethanol, butane, or alcohol are often used during processing. The majority of ethanol is made from GMO corn—which is sprayed with glyphosate, a pesticide classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. GMO content and/or pesticide residues could easily end up in the final product. Alternatively, some CBD products are produced using the less controversial CO2 or lipid extraction, or using non-GMO ethanol or alcohol.

What to Look for When Purchasing Hemp CBD Products

Fortunately, there are a number of CBD products in the market that are meeting high standards when it comes to how their products are produced and processed. If you're concerned about potential pesticides and how the hemp oil and other carrier oils in CBD products are produced, look for the USDA Certified Organic label, which ensures that ingredients were grown without pesticides and GMOs. For example, CFS's updated Hemp CBD Scorecard found that 72% of companies reviewed state they are using organic ingredients on their product labels, with 24% of companies increasing their use of organic ingredients since September 2019. Additionally, seek out products that are Sun + Earth Certified. To avoid GMOs (or the use of butane), look for products that use CO2, lipid extraction methods, or non-GMO ethanol.

The good news is that many companies are posting the official testing results of their products on their websites, which should be the industry standard. It's important that products are tested for pesticides, glyphosate (which requires a separate test), heavy metals (such as lead and arsenic), microbiological contaminants (such as mold or bacteria), and efficacy. All of these tests should be done by an ISO Certified Lab and the results should be publicly available on company websites.   

As the CBD industry continues to grow, producers should ensure their hemp CBD products are produced using practices that are safe and healthy for consumers and the environment, and these practices should be communicated clearly to consumers. This includes sourcing Certified Organic and non-GMO ingredients, testing for pesticides and contaminants, utilizing independent certifications, and providing clear and transparent information on the packaging of their products as well as company websites.

In the meantime, find out which products received high grades by reviewing CFS's Hemp CBD Scorecard!

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