Full Spectrum CBD: A New CBD Hoax
Are you ready to learn ANOTHER way CBD products aren't what they say they are? I'm very ready to tell you about this one...
I discussed CBD with ProjectCBD co-founder Martin Lee on the podcast episode Time To Believe The Hype. If you haven't gotten that message from my ravings about CBD at our CBD page, let me quote myself on the subject:
“I believe CBD will be a game-changer in the management of stress, anxiety, sleep, pain, and more.”
-Me. I said that.
While there is a tremendous amount that is good with CBD, there's so very much wrong with CBD. Most of those problems come not from the ingredients, but the products. As I’ve stressed, we must separate the cultural awareness of a supplement ingredient from the garbage products (I’m being honest!) that make their way to the store shelves.
There’s so much confusion with CBD. The prices are confusing. The labeling is confusing. It's difficult to get accurate doses. And no one knows how to explain to people how to properly use CBD. Except us, of course :)
Here's the next area of confusion that I believe is leading to deception in CBD products: full spectrum CBD.
What Is Full Spectrum CBD?
Full spectrum CBD refers to CBD extracts from cannabis or hemp that contain most, if not all, of the other compounds found naturally in the plant.
When we extract hemp oil from hemp you get CBD along with lots of other CBD-like compounds, essential oils, vitamins, proteins, omega fatty acids - a similar profile to any herbal or plant based product.
It is the current belief that those compounds play a significant role in CBD therapy. Full spectrum CBD, it is believed, is superior.
What does that look like exactly for CBD? There are numerous compounds that would be in a full spectrum CBD, besides CBD and small amounts of THC:
Many of these compounds are linked to the active compounds THC and CBD, but only have very limited activity in the body. Here’s a few:
- CBN - a THC metabolite. As the plant breaks down THC, it converts to this slightly active molecule
- CBG - a CBD precursor, used to make CBD or THC by the plant
- CBC - another cannabinoid that may have pharmacological effect yet to be fully understood
There are other cannabinoids like CBF, CBT, and CBL.
A terpene is an aromatic compound - an essential oil - that gives hemp and marijuana that danky dank smell. Some believe that each of these compounds can have an effect on the body. While I'd like to see some better data, I do know the power of aromatherapy. I fall more on the side of "smells good, makes me feel good" vs "this terpene has memory boosting effects" as other blogs out there promote.
Here are some terpenes:
A quick note: these terpenes listed aren’t unique to CBD. They can be found in other plants. What’s to stop someone from cutting corners by buying terpenes in bulk from a supplier then adding them to a CBD product, giving consumers the perception of a full spectrum CBD? Nothing.
Macro and Micronutrients
All plants have some protein, fat, carb, mineral, and vitamin levels.
A full spectrum CBD product would retain some vitamin, amino acid, mineral, and omega fat values. Omega-3 comes in the form of the precursor ALA, so you’re getting exposed to more active Omega-6 than active Omega-3.
Those nutrients in general are a bit insignificant, in my view, to both the therapeutic effects of CBD and also your nutritional health. The amounts are pretty tiny. While, yes, a full spectrum product would have these nutrients, give me a break. If you use your cannabis oil to get your daily protein, you might be a stoner. Or Snoop Dogg. Either way.
The point? There's more to a cannabis plant than CBD and THC.
What is Broad Spectrum CBD?
There's another term floating around that may cause some confusion. Full spectrum is everything - CBD, naturally occurring THC, and all the other fun stuff we mentioned above.
A broad spectrum CBD is one where they remove the THC component completely. So it's a full spectrum without the THC.
Do you get the sense these words are used willy-nilly?
The theory here is that you will have all of the good parts of full spectrum CBD without the more psychoactive effects of THC.
Here’s a little added bonus discussion around CBD and THC: I can, and will, write a whole blog article about the CBD/THC ratio, especially around hemp and CBD products. The short version is this: A legal hemp product is one that has less than 0.3% of THC in it, so a CBD product can have no more than 0.3%. That's largely an arbitrary number. Some hemp has more, some has less. So the 0.3% THC level in a CBD product that "has to be in there!" as some consumers demand is often manufactured, not naturally occurring. They'll add enough THC to hit the 0.3% goal; the THC isn't always naturally occuring to that level.
And, who's to say 0.3% THC and 97.7% (just for argument sake) is the best ratio to get the CBD-THC synergism? I would argue it depends on a lot, but mostly the person and the specific indication. Maybe a bigger man with anxiety needs 80/20. Maybe grandma who can't sleep should have 90/5.
Until we have clearer data around different ratios of CBD and THC, we should not assume that 0.3% will have any clinically significant synergistic effects.
I don’t believe any data really says if broad spectrum is worse than full spectrum. The bigger point - know there’s a difference.
What is CBD Isolate?
CBD isolate is similar to any vitamins you would find in a traditional multivitamin. If you remove just the CBD compound, leaving behind all the other stuff, you have isolated the CBD and created - you guessed it - CBD isolate. A pure CBD tincture.
CBD isolate is looked down upon by cannabis purists. The isolate is the "manufactured" one and the "therapeutic one" made by "the devil himself, Big Pharma."
I try not to judge Big Pharma any more harshly than I do Big Supplement. I'd like to wait on the results of data comparing a product like Epidiolex (a CBD isolate used for seizures) to similarly dosed, real, full spectrum CBD, for the indications they are approved for before I throw stones.
Does Full Spectrum CBD Mean Better CBD?
A quick note: Full spectrum CBD isn’t specific to tinctures. There can be full spectrum tinctures, capsules, gummy bears, whatever.
A botanical purist would say we want to retain as many of other plant compounds as possible to get the full effect of the herbal medicine, CBD or not. This is the theory in our special extract of turmeric found in Turmeric VMAX: it's all of the tumerones with the essential oils, not just the isolate curcumin.
On the opposite side of the fake spectrum is where isolates matter. Saw palmetto or red yeast rice contain individual compounds that have specific pharmacologic effect. Removing those compounds and refining them has resulted in our much more effective medications for both prostate health and cholesterol, respectively.
Whether full spectrum hemp oil matters clinically requires a case by case review. Many CBD-heads cite a 2005 study done in Israel that compared full spectrum to isolated CBD. In the study, the subjects who used full spectrum CBD had higher levels of relief vs isolate. And when doses were increased, full spectrum provided more relief while isolate effects plateaued.
Why? The entourage effect. Oh man, more vocabulary!
Not just a show about young stardom and a turtle on HBO, the entourage effect basically says there is a synergy between cannabinoids (major and minor) and the terpenes found in the plant. It’s another keyword thrown around but not entirely understood.
There are other data pieces around full spectrum CBD besides the single Israeli study, too. Full spectrum produces quicker results. Full spectrum requires less CBD concentrations for the same effect as higher dose CBD isolate. Full spectrum has more impact with less of the negative effects like confusion or "hangover," especially at high doses.
While we need to educate ourselves, remember that as we read the blogs and media out there, much of the CBD stuff is not backed up by excellent data. We have lots of small good bits which give us an idea of what's going on but requires multiple larger bits of data to make stronger conclusions.
Even with ok data, this all sounds like a no-brainer to me. Full spectrum or bust. There probably will be some therapeutic advantage of using a full spectrum product over an isolate.
For now, a consumer should recognize that a full spectrum product is mostly likely the superior option, but there are problems with the execution of full spectrum CBD products.
The Problem With Full Spectrum CBD
Here's the problem with full spectrum. The term full spectrum is not a legally regulated term, so it means largely nothing as it pertains to the products you buy.
Let's talk about the term “organic.” Not regulated. USDA Certified Organic is the legal term, and that normally means you pass a specific inspection and have less, not 0, pesticides and herbicides. I can call anything that has carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen organic technically and get away with it. And boy, do companies do that.
Ask a consumer what full spectrum means and you'll get varied answers. The reason I wrote this blog is because enough people have told me "CBD is full spectrum because it has the THC." There's confusion around the term, and hopefully, for my readers there will be less confusion about what the term means after reading this.
But, I'm going to add a new level of confusion because I like to stir the, um, pot. I've been light on the puns lately...
What about the products themselves? How do I verify a "full spectrum" CBD isn't lying to me?
Here's the bigger question because the Riddler was my hero, not Batman: Why wouldn't they lie to you? They do it all the time!
Drumroll please, as we are now at the heart of the article… As a result of this ambiguity, I'm telling you right now that many products that say they are full spectrum are actually not. You can slap "full spectrum" on your CBD isolate and no one is the wiser.
I mentioned this exact point to Martin during our podcast discussion and he confirmed it. Via third party analysis of products on the market, ProjectCBD found full spectrum products were not really full spectrum. To protect themselves, they have not released this data. People get lawsuit happy, even if they're the ones that are wrong. Martin noted, though, that Consumer Reports will be releasing some info along these lines soon. Let them take the heat.
I have an anecdote, too. I recently vetted another CBD company, bringing my number to 38 total companies. After refusing to give me their lab test to ensure their product was quality, they finally caved and sent what I wanted to see. I can't share it here without getting sued myself, but their "full spectrum" CBD had traces of some compounds in it, but not many of the active cannabinoids or terpenes.
A less-studied person would look at that and say, oh, there are the other things, it’s full spectrum and we're good to go!
It was half-full spectrum. Or half-empty spectrum. Depends on how you look at it.
An Even Deeper Dive Into Full Spectrum
Here’s an interesting quote you can use in your conversations about CBD that I just came up with: CBD is closer to wine or tea than it is nettles.
I’ve been podcasting like a nut. In a future episode, Miriam Novalle from T Salon taught me about quality around tea and how the experts understand all the nuances in the crops and processing.
Just like tea, there are many variables that will dictate what is in a CBD crop. The soil, the sunlight, the rain, the species and specific properties of the seed will change that CBD profile.
Which means there's no one universal CBD profile. It will vary crop to crop and CBD product to product.
Are you ready for some real behind the scenes stuff that I lose sleep over?
After the growing, then there’s the processing. f a brand uses ethanol as an extraction agent, you’ll have “more full” spectrum than using CO2 extraction.
If you do CO2 extraction, many people know you should hear the words “supercritical extraction.” What you might not know is that there’s a first step you’d take called subcritical extraction that allows for a greater yield of terpenes. I’ve had brands tell me that on analysis of their freshly harvested crops, the terpene profile was so low (based on the growing conditions), that they didn’t bother with the more expensive step to get all the terpenes. So, theoretically, their product was less “full spectrum” than normal. Did that matter?
Depending on how it is processed after extraction, you may yield different cannabinoids - CBDa is an acidic version that may have some pharmacologic effects, but is in short supply unless manufactured and processed to yield it.
The point that I’ll say again: there is a tremendous amount of nuance here that must be considered.
- All of the variability of the crop
- All of the variability of the processing
- Add in the uncertainty around what full spectrum ingredient does what and at what dose or ratio
I envision a future where two things, at a minimum, will happen:
- People will start genetically modifying hemp to yield certain concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes. Oh no! GMO Weed! Well, we've been doing this for a long time around pot, and we're not talking adding new properties to a plant that wouldn't be there.
- People will start creating CBD formulations that are full spectrum, but then augmented with particular ingredients to create unique formulas for specific treatment modalities.
Right now in the marijuana industry, companies are making their own unique strains and branding them. It's like buying a mattress. Many are probably the same but they're using different names so it's impossible to compare them.
Any way you slice it, there's a good chance the CBD industry is going to get more confusing, with more products out there and more things to consider.
A New Monster: Franken-CBD
At the end of the day, a CBD product is going to not be a pure extract from an herb. It's going to be a manufactured product, where the original ingredients are manipulated to create target concentrations and doses.
A hemp plant, for example, won't be exactly 25mg per 1 ml of CBD like we have in our top seller. We have to take CBD isolate and add it to a full spectrum extraction to get the exact amounts of CBD. There’s manipulation on the products to get them to yield the dose we are targeting.
As I said before when talking about THC, what ratio of minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and other goodies to the major cannabinoids do we need to have that "entourage effect?"
We don't really know.
What if I took my hemp processing facility and separated out each one of the terpenes and cannabinoids into barrels.
Then I made my monster: Franken-CBD. Adding in a pinch of CBC, a smack of limonene, exactly 0.3% THC. Can I call this full spectrum cbd oil?
Separating The Science From The Product
So many new confusing terms added to your CBD plate. Broad spectrum, isolate, full spectrum, cannabinoids, terpenes... the list goes on and on.
There's so much that we have yet to learn about how cannabis products help us and how to formulate the perfect cannabis compound for specific conditions and specific people.
In the current reality, a buyer must beware. Because of loose or inconsistent regulations, companies lacking integrity, and a lack of clear consumer education, CBD products are often not what you think they are.
A few articles back we said there’s no good or bad fats, really. Now I’m saying this: there’s no one full spectrum CBD. Full spectrum CBD will vary all the way from “haha this isn't even full spectrum we're liars and you bought it" up to "this is a very thoughtful strain of hemp farmed and processed correctly meant to do XY or Z."
When it comes to using full spectrum, it's probably extremely important. Whether or not the CBD product you are buying is TRULY full spectrum, and what exactly that means, is one more on a list of things to consider when buying a CBD product.
CBD is a powerful option for optimizing your health and there's so much more to come. Product quality, misinformation, and misunderstandings may stand in the way of you reaching your full CBD potential.
One thing is for certain. I will be as aggressive as I can in getting these answers from the brands we trust to ensure you ARE getting the right information for the experience you want.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth