- What’s the difference between hemp and CBD crops? And what’s better, isolate or full-spectrum CBD?
Hemp for Victory
North America is bustling with hemp crops this growing season, and there’s talk of more and more planting in the seasons to come. It appears that the majority of more recent hemp-growing efforts are for the production of CBD (cannabidiol), the highly sought-after medicinal compound found in cannabis.
CBD is used for a wide range of applications and has a variety of benefits for both people and animals. CBD provides physical and mental stimulation, although it’s not considered to be a psychoactive substance because it doesn’t produce the noteworthy buzz that people associate with recreational cannabis use. CBD is used to treat pain, promote healing, reduce anxiety, stimulate appetite and encourage sleep. Some research shows that the human body produces its own substance that is biologically very much like the CBD that comes from cannabis. In fact, there are receptors in the human brain that are very specific to CBD. Preliminary research even suggests that CBD can be a disease-fighting substance, even for use against cancer.
While CBD is just one of the many beneficial substances produced by the cannabis plant, including THC and terpenes, it’s an area of great focus that continues to grow from consumer, research and industrial perspectives.
In the United Sates, CBD is relatively unregulated (especially when compared with THC), which has resulted in its widespread adoption and acceptance as it is increasingly included in a wide range of consumer products.
CBD can be vaped, smoked, eaten or taken topically (e.g., in skin creams), with each delivery method having its own benefits depending on the desired end result. If you name a type of product, chances are there is a CBD-infused version now available. If not, it’s not very far off.
Without a doubt, CBD is widely accepted as a beneficial and therapeutic substance, and we are likely to see more and more of it in everyday applications.
The majority of consumers who are interested in CBD tend to associate it with the hemp plant—marijuana’s cousin, if you will. A lot of the time this is accurate—many CBD-infused products are formulated with CBD isolates, which are typically derived from industrial hemp crops.
At present, a significant percentage of CBD isolates coming into North America are imported legally or otherwise from China. There have been a number of concerns raised by those in the know regarding importation from China, citing poor or even dangerous agricultural practices used to produce hemp crops as parent material for CBD isolates.
CBD isolate is an accurate name for this substance—it is an isolated component from a wide range of naturally occurring substances in cannabis plants, typically hemp. CBD isolate is usually a white, crystalline powder with no strong discernible odor or flavor. From a CBD-infused-product manufacturer’s perspective, it’s easy to work with to create products that are consistent in effect, flavor, smell and appearance.
From a consumer point of view, is CBD isolate from hemp the best choice as an ingredient to deliver the therapeutic effects desired? The short answer is likely not.
Why Full Spectrum?
The best and briefest answer to why full-spectrum cannabinoid extracts rich in CBD are often superior when it comes to the effects and benefits we desire has roots in what has been coined the “entourage effect.” Basically, full-spectrum CBD extracts contain other important substances such as aromatic compounds and traces of other cannabinoids found naturally in cannabis plants that work synergistically with the key ingredient, CBD, to amplify and improve the benefits we seek.
Compare powdered orange juice with fresh-squeezed juice. Both will supply you with your necessary daily dose of vitamin C; however, fresh-squeezed juice will also provide your body with other important substances like enzymes, naturally occurring sugars, calcium and more, all working together to improve your health more than vitamin C can do alone. Arguably, the natural source is easier for your body to absorb, too, as it is supplied with other healthy substances.
A simple observation many consumers have made when it comes to products containing CBD is that they feel more of the desired effects, like pain relief or relaxation, when the product they take—comparing milligram to milligram of CBD—has been derived from full-spectrum sources.
Take the very popular CBD gummy bear for example—which, by the way, was Google’s No. 3 food search in 2018. Given the same listed amount of CBD—for example, each bear is tested to have 20 milligrams of CBD—the majority of consumers find they have to eat more of the isolate-derived bears to begin to achieve the same benefits as when eating the full-spectrum bears.
Again, this circles back to the entourage effect that cannabinoids are thought to have. Consumers prefer a full-spectrum cocktail of naturally occurring ingredients to a one-dimensional synthesized single ingredient.
Live CBD Resin Extracts
A full-spectrum dose of CBD won’t necessarily get you high. It’s entirely possible to create natural full-spectrum extracts or even smokable flowers that are very low in THC but contain very high levels of CBD—for example, 20:1 ratios of CBDA to THCA—without removing the other beneficial substances like the aromatic compounds, including terpenes (or terps).
Live CBD resin extracts are a great example of this, with the end result being a highly concentrated full-spectrum CBD extract that can be added to a wide array of consumer product goods or even dabbed or vaped in its raw state. A live CBD resin extract from quality cannabis appears golden and transparent—you can read newsprint through it.
What it all really boils down to in obtaining highly beneficial and naturally occurring CBD extracts is plant genetics, i.e., cannabis plants that naturally produce very low THC levels while containing very high CBD levels and beneficial terpene profiles for therapeutic purposes where no “buzz” or intoxicating effects are sought.
What to Grow?
The majority of us are taught that hemp is the version of cannabis that fits that criteria—and this is where our CBD extracts for infusion in a variety of products should come from.
This isn’t entirely accurate—or even beneficial for either the consumer or the environment.
Historically, hemp has been cultivated in North America for food and fiber, e.g., stalks for rope or textiles. Hemp seeds are harvested for their nutritional oil and protein content and not for high levels of CBD. Hemp tends to be a low-potency cannabis-plant variant that genetically has a higher ratio of CBD to THC, with not a whole lot of either compared with modern recreational-use cannabis genetics.
Hemp was not bred for its cannabinoid content, terpene profile, etc.—all the stuff that people who take CBD for its nutraceutical value are seeking. Hemp was bred and selected to be a hardy plant that grows easily and yields thick cellulose- and lignin-rich stems and stalks along with protein- and oil-rich seeds. Hemp is an extremely useful agricultural plant and makes for excellent fiber and food—however, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s the best source of therapeutic substances like CBD.
CBD from Hemp?
At present, regulations for growing hemp crops in North America make it much easier to obtain a license for legal cultivation, especially on any industrial scale when compared with growing marijuana, although both are in fact members of the cannabis plant family. That’s why a lot of people interested in producing CBD are cultivating cannabis as hemp, even though they may not desire to harvest the crop for food or fiber (which is what hemp was bred and selected for).
Regulations vary in North America from country to country, state to state and province to province to greater or lesser extents.
The majority of these hemp crops being grown for their CBD content at present day have tight restrictions placed on seed sourcing. By regulation, these approved hemp-seed genetics have very low THC potency, which usually means low CBD yields too.
This has created a situation where would-be CBD field-crop producers are forced by legislation and the law to select and buy approved hemp varieties. Most of these varieties are not likely to produce over 6 percent CBD. In fact, most will be closer to 3 percent while keeping with THC values of 0.3 percent or less (as is often mandated).
CBD from Drug Cultivars
Now let’s take modern CBD drug cultivar genetics and compare.
CBD drug cultivars are strains of cannabis with genetics that more closely resemble modern high-THC plant types—all your favorite high-potency strains. Unlike hemp, these plants do not grow very thick stems in a pole-like pattern. Drug cultivars are squat and more widely branched. The most important thing here is that the drug cultivars have been bred and selected with a large emphasis on resin production rather than on thick stocks or hardy seeds as with true hemp genetics.
CBD drug cultivars have lots of trichomes and pump out lots of resin. Really, one of the only differences CBD drug cultivars have compared with high-potency recreational cannabis strains is that the THC-to-CBD ratio is for all intents and purposes reversed.
There are feminized seed sources available that are capable of producing over 20 percent CBD consistently and that also carry a beneficial terpene profile (for the entourage effect), making them absolutely ideal for full-spectrum CBD-rich extracts. However, some of these genetics may produce 0.3-0.7 percent THC.
While that THC level is not enough to create a high, it is enough for the seeds not to meet the present-day criteria as hemp genetics and therefore get lumped into the same category as traditional marijuana cultivars.
Although these strains yield a 500-1,000 percent increase in CBD compared with approved hemp varieties, they are unavailable to legal producers because of a few decimal points’ difference in THC (which in reality is no real difference).
So, to sum it up in the context of hemp crops versus a true CBD crop, a producer has to grow five to 10 times the acreage to achieve the same end yield of CBD, which is not likely to be as high a level of quality—simply to satisfy current regulatory standards. To reiterate, the 20 percent or greater CBD strains (versus 3-6 percent, at best, with hemp) are not producing enough THC to get anybody high, but they are explicitly forbidden by most hemp-growing regulatory bodies.
In short, that’s nuts. That’s five to 10 times the resources and expenses to achieve a lesser end result. And to what end? Who really benefits from this?
The Future of CBD
Improved regulations for growers need to address CBD production specifically. Lumping CBD production and hemp into the same crop category, especially for mandatory seed sourcing, seems like a mistake. Other countries have created workable allowances for high-CBD strains with very low THC levels that work for farmers and CBD producers—for example, 1 percent THC or less is permissible in Colombia.
Undeniably, the increase in hemp-farming licenses issued recently is a positive step forward in renewing the value of hemp production in North America. However, due to modern breeding and selection, crops for CBD may not really be “hemp” anymore. It’s like comparing the heavily seeded brick weed of the ’70s with what is presently harvested in a modern cultivation facility; the two products are simply worlds apart.
Following regulations is not optional on an industrial scale, and having the voice of the growing community heard in public forums where decisions are influenced or made surrounding cannabis crop production is as important as it ever has been. Facts are difficult to debate, especially when resources like fresh water for crops are becoming increasingly scarce in important growing regions—growers need policies and regulations that are based on reason, as does the public, which supports these practices and regulatory bodies as consumers.
In some parts of the world like Europe, hemp production is a well-established institution, and Canada is also becoming an established hemp producer since improved legislation for field-hemp farmers has been rolled out over the last two decades.
In comparison with the hemp-production industry, the global CBD industry is in its infancy, with massive potential for use in a wide array of products the world over.
It is important for people to understand that while hemp and CBD crops may be similar in some aspects—both are from the cannabis family, after all—they are in fact very different plants when it comes to desired genetics. Educated and informed consumers can help influence legislation and regulations that better fit CBD producers—often, the most powerful vote we make is when we spend our money.
Just like the food you eat, it’s good to know where the CBD you take is coming from or sourced. And also like the food you eat, sometimes the best choice can come right out of your own garden. Choose wisely.