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How to Interpret a Cannabidiol (CBD) Certificate of Analysis

November 3, 2020 - Science - Written by: Dr. Jonny Lisano, Ph.D.

Disclaimer: Part of our mission is to always present the latest cannabinoid research; however, none of this is intended to represent the safety or efficacy of our products. These statements and our products have not been evaluated by the FDA, and our products are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any disease. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before taking CBD to determine if it is right for your needs.

The CBD market is quickly growing. To stay competitive many companies are having independent labs perform third-party testing on their products, but what does that even mean? Third-party testing is used to describe the process through which a CBD company contracts an independent lab to test its products for cannabinoid content, terpenes, heavy metals, and potential contaminants (i.e. bacteria and harmful residual solvents). As a result of this testing CBD companies often receive what is known as a certificate of analysis (COA) containing the complete results of the analysis. These COAs are then often used to attest to the quality of the company’s products. However, sometimes these COAs can be misleading or unrepresentative of the product, with products often not meeting the label claims based on the results of their accompanying COA.

As a CBD consumer, it is imperative for you to recognize that a product advertised as “third-party tested” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is high-quality. In this article, we will take you through a few basic steps to help you better assess CBD product COAs on your own. Ensuring that when you purchase a new CBD product you’ll get exactly what you paid for while keeping you safe from potential contaminants on your journey of exploring the benefits of CBD.

Step 1: Is a COA provided for the product? 

    • No COA: You’ll find it extremely difficult (practically impossible) to determine what a CBD product actually contains if no COA is provided. Plus, you’ll have no way of knowing if it is potentially contaminated with harmful substances or over the legal limit for THC in hemp. We would not recommend purchasing any CBD product that does not have a COA.
    • COA Provided: Good! Now it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Step 2: Locate identifying information of the Lab, product, and date of testing.  

    • Name of the lab that performed the testing (red box in Figure 1 below). There are numerous labs within the hemp and cannabis space that offer third-party testing services. With most labs using their own protocols to perform the analysis. In our experience, we have found that the most reliable third-party testing facilities are Proverde, Botanacor, and Eurofins. That is not to say that testing done by any lab other than those listed is invalid, this list is merely based on our personal experience.

It is critical that the lab performing the testing is not owned or affiliated with the company supplying the CBD product. A COA provided by the same company selling the product is highly suspect, and does not constitute “third party testing”.

    • A unique certificate ID (blue box in Figure 1 below): This certificate ID is unique to only this COA and batch of product that was tested. Every time a company produces a new batch of products a new COA should be provided. A COA from a previous batch does not represent the new batch, as there can be quite a bit of variation between batches. If the certificate ID is the same for multiple batches, the company is simply reusing the same COA over and over again, which is not representative of the current product you’re considering.
    • Unique lot number (green box in Figure 1 below): As stated above every new batch of CBD extract is unique, and is often identified with a lot number on the bottom of the bottle. Similar to the certificate ID number, this number should be identifiable on the COA and should match the lot number of the batch that is currently being sold. If the lot number on the product does not match that on the COA, then the COA is not representative or valid for that product. In this situation, the COA is most likely from a previous product batch. We would recommend requesting the current COA prior to making a purchase decision for this product.
    • Testing and approval dates (pink boxes in Figure 1 below): each COA should have a date when the product was received by the lab, tested, and approved. If these dates are not present or identifiable there is no way of knowing when the testing took place. All CBD products age and degrade over time, so an old test date may mean the current potency of the product is lower than what the COA lists. Different carrier oils (e.g. olive oil, MCT oil**, hemp seed oil, etc.) degrade CBD potency at different rates. We do not recommend purchasing any CBD product with no identifiable testing date as there is the potential for these products to be expired, or have lower potency than expected.

**Research has shown that of the commonly used carrier oils (olive oil, MCT oil, and hemp seed oil) that MCT oil is the most stable and preserved cannabinoid content longer.

Figure 1: Identifying Information on a COA

Note: A. (Red) The name of the third-party testing facility is clearly visible. The testing was ordered by 6° Wellness, which is not affiliated with ProVerde. B. (Teal) The unique certificate ID is listed as 71388. C. (Green) The product’s unique lot number is listed. This particular batch had a lot number of LE190509. D. (Pink) There are three dates listed on this COA, the date the sample was received, the date the testing occurred, and the date that the testing was approved.

Step 3: Assess what the product contains

    • Cannabinoid content: The cannabinoids present in the product are highly dependent on the type of product being tested. However, no hemp-derived CBD products should contain more than 0.3% Delta-9-THC. As defined by the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is legally defined as having less than 0.3% Delta-9-THC. If above this established limit the product is then classified as marijuana, which may or may not be legal depending on the state that you live in.

The next thing to note is if the CBD content reported in the COA matches the amount of CBD claimed on the label. Now, to do this you will have to do a bit of math but is fairly simple to calculate. Cannabinoid content, including CBD, is often reported in milligrams per milliliter, or mg/mL. To determine the total cannabinoid content simply multiply the CBD concentration reported in the COA by the total volume of the product in mL. In the example below from Figure 2A, we would multiply the CBD concentration of 10.18 mg/mL by the product’s total volume of 60 mL. This would give us a total CBD content within the product of 610.8 mg of CBD. The discrepancy between the label and the test results are quite low, which is an indication of consistency for this product.  We recommend not purchasing any CBD products outside of a 10% range of the label claim, as this is often a sign of poor manufacturer quality.

An example of an invalid  COA for CBD potency can be seen in Figure 2B below. This COA is actually for the bulk concentrate used to formulate the final product, and not for the final product itself. This is not useful information for the end consumer, as there are a lot of steps in between the bulk concentrate and the final product, and it does not give you any indication of what is in the bottle you’re considering purchasing. If we were to interpret it as the COA of the final product itself, a 30 mL bottle would contain nearly 27,500 mg of CBD, well above the label claims of 500 or 1000 mg total CBD for this COA’s accompanying products. We’ll explain more about these test results below.

Figure 2A: COA with good cannabinoid test results

Note: You can see that in this COA a total of 12 major cannabinoids were tested for, including THC and CBD. A. (Red) To be considered hemp-derived, a CBD product can not contain more than 0.3% Delta-9-THC by weight. You can clearly see in this COA that the Delta-9-THC content is well below this limit at 0.05%. Meaning that this product can be classified as hemp-derived CBD and not marijuana. B. (Teal) Testing showed that the concentration of CBD in this product is 10.18 mg/mL. The product contains 60 mL of CBD oil meaning that the total amount of CBD in the bottle is 610.8 mg. Comparing this to the label claim of 600 mg of CBD it is only 1.8% away from the claimed content, and well within an acceptable range.

Figure 2B: COA with unacceptable cannabinoid test results

Note: This is a COA used for two different products (a 500 & 1000 mg CBD product), which is already a red flag. Every batch of every product should have its own COA. A. (Red) The testing results show that there is 915.9 mg of CBD per gram, which can roughly be interpreted as 915.9 mg of CBD per mL. Both the 500 mg and 1000 mg products come in a 30 mL glass bottle. Based on these results both products would have approximately 27,500 mg of CBD per bottle. B. (Pink) In fact, there is actually no way to determine the cannabinoid content for the provided products based on this COA as it is for the bulk extract that was used to formulate the product, and not the final product itself, which isn’t useful for the consumer. It is even noted as being a COA for CBD concentrate in the top left corner. You can read more about this below under the sub-heading bulk extract.

    • Check for contaminants: Now, it is possible for CBD products to contain contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, and residual chemical solvents. It’s important to check the products COA for these contaminants as their presence could impact your long-term health.
        1. Microbial contaminants, in particular, E. coli and salmonella can be very dangerous and lead to serious illness. In the section of the COA marked as some iteration of “Microbial Contaminants” or “Bacterial Contaminants” there should be no contaminants detected, and they should receive a status of passing. If the status isn’t marked as passing, we recommend that you avoid this product to minimize your risk of illness.
        2. Heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic can cause serious side effects if they accumulate within the body. Similar to microbial contaminants there should be no heavy metals detected within the product, and each heavy metal tested for should receive a status of passing as seen in the example below.
        3. Residual solvents: Within the CBD industry, a wide variety of different solvents are used to extract the active components from the raw hemp plant. Common solvents used in the extraction process known as “Hydrocarbon solvent extraction” are heptane and hexane. While these solvents are very cheap and effective in extracting the active components of hemp, sometimes they are often not fully removed from the final extract and products. Heptane and hexane, in particular, have been known to cause liver damage.

Certain extraction processes can be cleaner than others. For example, CO2 extraction does not leave residue and is deemed the gold standard of extraction techniques. As with the other contaminants, no residual solvents should be detected on the COA and should receive a status of passing.

Figure 3: Acceptable contaminant test results

Note: In red these test results the potential contaminants tested for. In this snippet of a COA the contaminants tested for were microbial and pathogenic contaminants. As you can see in the green boxes, all of the contaminants tested for received a passing status. You would want to see similar results for other contaminants as well including heavy metals and residual solvents.

Easy ways to know if a COA is invalid:

Here we list some of the easiest ways to quickly assess if a COA is invalid.

Bulk Extract: It is common practice for manufacturers to test the bulk extract following the completion of the extraction process. This helps them know the purity of their starting extract so they can properly dilute the extract into their line up of products. However, this COA should not be used to attest to the quality of the product. A unique COA should be provided for the finalized product, not the bulk extract. A giveaway that this is the case, is when assessing the CBD content. A CBD content above 90% is typically an indication that the company is using the bulk CBD extract COA and did not test the finalized product. An example of this can be seen in Figure 2B in which the COA provided was being used for both 500 & 1000 mg products. This COA has a total CBD content by weight of 91.59%, clearly indicating it was for a CBD concentrate and not the finalized oil. There would be no way to truly determine the cannabinoid content for either product based on these results.

Manufacturer Testing: It is good practice for a manufacturer to have their own analytical equipment to test for potency during the manufacturing process, this helps manufacturers create more consistent products, however, the final products should always be third-party tested by an independent laboratory. Your school teachers probably didn’t let you grade your own tests, right? Third-party testing maintains objectivity and preserves the integrity of the analysis itself.

Same COA for Multiple Batches: It’s tempting for manufacturers to use the same COA for different batches. If the starting materials were the same, and the process was the same, why shouldn’t you assume the final products from different batches were the same? Well, a lot can happen along the manufacturing process. Equipment can fail, there could be natural variation within the plant, and there is always the possibility for human error (after all we aren’t perfect). This is why it’s important to test the final product from every single manufacturing batch, and not just assume all batches are the same. Make sure the COA is specific to your product, and not a similar product from the same manufacturer.

Not Enough Information: Quite often, we see COAs that just don’t have enough information to calculate what is in the final product. Typically in these situations, the potency concentration or the volume of the product aren’t listed. If the COA doesn’t have all the components mentioned in this article, then it is useless in determining the quality of the product in question. Most reputable laboratories report all the necessary information needed for assessing product quality.

Summary

We know that there is a lot of information presented in this article, and it may feel like a daunting process to navigate on your own every time you want to purchase a new CBD product; however, ensuring that your new product meets each of these criteria will not only guarantee you’re consuming exactly how much CBD you intended, but also that your product is free from potentially harmful contaminants. Knowing the accurate THC levels will also prevent you from accidental intoxication or a positive drug test. Just use the quick checklist below and you’ll be assured that you have a high-quality CBD product.

CBD Product Checklist:

-COA provided

-Testing was performed by a third-party

-The COA has a unique certificate ID

-The lot number provided on the COA matches the one on the product

-The date on the COA is within 2-years of the date of purchase

-The Delta-9-THC is not more than 0.3%

-The measured CBD content matches that claimed on the label

-There are no microbial, heavy metal, or natural solvent contaminants

We know that this is a lot of steps to go through just for a single product. If you are looking to skip the hassle and want products that meet all of these standards, know that each and every product sold by 6 Degrees Wellness meets these requirements. Don’t believe us? Check for yourself! Our current batch number for our full-spectrum CBD tincture is LE190119. If you would like the COA to our CBD isolate capsules just email us at hello@sixdegreeswellness.com. We would be happy to provide it to you.

One day, CBD will have more stringent regulations, but until then, it’s up to you to be a “citizen scientist” and assess product quality before making a purchase. It’ll be worth it, we guarantee it.

P.S. Stay tuned for more information about the validity of third-party testing COA’s. We may have some research we are working on that emphasizes the importance of knowing that third-party tested does not mean high-quality. 

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JONNY LISANO, Ph.D.

Jonny received his Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Exercise Physiology. During his time at (UNC) he and his advisor established the first cannabis and exercise performance laboratory in the nation. Jonny’s early research pertaining to cannabis focused on the assessment of how the long-term use of cannabis products in physically active individuals affected parameters of overall health and exercise performance. As he progressed into the field of cannabis research his focused shifted from exercise performance to that of how CBD affects immune function in physically active individuals who are using cannabis products.

Jonny has always been an advocate for living a healthy lifestyle and believes CBD can be an integral part of that. His focus at 6° Wellness is to provide and explain the most current scientific knowledge pertaining to cannabis in a way everyone can understand, and providing recommendations on how the products we offer can fit into your lifestyle.

In his free time Jonny enjoys training for competitive obstacle course races, hiking the beautiful Colorado backcountry, and partaking in the occasional beer from the local craft beer scene.

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