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Breaking Down the 3 Major Types of CBD

A rundown of definitions, legalities and marketing considerations of the fast-growing category
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Photograph: Shutterstock

The legal landscape surrounding cannabidiol—a naturally occurring compound found in cannabis and hemp—is already murky, and now there's additional confusion about the types of cannabidiol, or CBD, products. Not gummies or tinctures, but the much more technical area of full-spectrum products, isolate and broad spectrum. According to Colleen Lanier, the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, these are merely “commonly used industry terms” and not “standardized by federal legislation,” which further confuses matters.

Floyd Landis, the founder of Leadville, Colo.-based Floyds of Leadville, said the biggest difference between the three product types from a consumer perspective is whether or not they have any amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive ingredient of cannabis known as THC.

“The only difference between any of these is how it’s processed,” he said. “There’s a lot of big words and confusion, but it’s actually not that complicated: There’s a plant and it’s got desirable attributes, so we process it in certain ways to have more or less of one attribute or another.”

WGB turned to Lanier, Landis and other experts to break down what retailers need to know about these different types of CBD options.

Full Spectrum: Whole Plant, Including THC

  • Definition: Lanier defines full-spectrum hemp products as “the total extract of the flower, including THC, and all cannabinoids.”

  • Legality: To be considered hemp—and therefore legalized under the Farm Bill—Lanier said full-spectrum products must have less than 0.3% THC. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still developing its rules for use of such products in food, beverage and supplements.

  • Benefits: “As more people become educated about the space, full spectrum/whole plant is thought to be the most premium product,” said Tony Sparks, co-founder of West Des Moines, Iowa-based CBD distributor Betterment Retail Solutions. That’s due to the fact that full-spectrum hemp includes all the cannabinoids, terpenes and other beneficial parts of the cannabis plant, which many describe as an “entourage effect.”

  • Concerns: The biggest concern for retailers and full-spectrum product is the inclusion of THC. “There does appear to be a significant group of people who either don’t want THC or that THC specifically creates a liability,” said Miguel Martin, president and CEO of Reliva CBD LLC, Natick, Mass.

Broad Spectrum: Whole Plant, No THC

  • Definition: Broad spectrum is a relatively new and evolving term in the industry. But Lanier said the current general definition is “the extract of the flower, without THC, but most other cannabinoids—the THC has been removed entirely.”

  • Legality: Because broad-spectrum products contain no THC, they too are legal under the Farm Bill but subject to FDA oversight.

  • Benefits: Broad-spectrum products seem to offer the most benefit for consumers who either don’t want or can’t have THC but still want the other beneficial aspects of the cannabis plant.

  • Concerns: Because it’s a relatively new—and not federally regulated—segment, Sparks warned there’s a lot of mislabeling of broad-spectrum products. Some may not, in fact, include other cannabinoids as promised. Additionally, the process of removing the THC is costly, which can drive up the price for consumers.

Isolate: CBD Only

  • Definition: “Isolate is the isolated cannabinoid from the extraction of the flower such that it contains a singular chemical compound, such as CBD, and no other cannabinoids,” said Lanier.

  • Legality: Initially there were concerns that because the FDA has approved a CBD isolate drug called Epidiolex, either the agency of the maker of that drug (GW Pharmaceuticals) would treat CBD isolate different than products using whole plant extract. That has not come to fruition. In statements made thus far by the FDA, the focus has been on CBD as a whole—not isolate compared to full spectrum. “Not one of the state regulations have drawn a distinction between the different formats,” added Martin.

  • Benefits: Though broad spectrum is now an option for those consumers who can’t have any THC, isolate is probably the safest bet due to the way it’s produced. “When you just isolate out CBD, you take away any concern about THC,” said Martin. The value and assurance of 0% THC with an isolate product makes it a strong option for retailers looking for consistent, high-quality 0% THC products.” Additionally, there are some types of products where isolate powder is the best—or only—option. For example, water infused with full-spectrum CBD oil probably wouldn’t taste or appear as desirable as water infused with isolated CBD powder. “Isolate strips away terpenes, flavor profiles and more,” said Sparks. “If you’re looking to produce a product that doesn’t have a lot of the cannabis flavoring, isolate is the primary way to do so.”

  • Concerns: Some have argued the inclusion of just CBD means these products are not as effective as the whole plant options. While it’s true that isolate products do not contain THC or other cannabinoids, Landis points out the isolate process has proven to be an effective option across a plethora of consumer product goods. “Caffeine is derived from different plants, isolated into a powder and reintroduced into food products,” he said. “Nothing’s really been invented here: the processing techniques already existed in all types of food manufacturing. CBD works perfectly fine on its own.”

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