Our national love affair with CBD has hit a rough spot. America, we have trust issues.
After a flurry of excitement about the wellness benefits of the newly legal cannabinoid, consumers are finding that all products are not created equal.
Some have too little CBD. Some have too much. Some have none at all.
Congress’ decision to end federal CBD prohibition in late 2018 opened the door to hundreds of new companies marketing thousands of products. CBD soda, lip balm, gummies, vape pens, and capsules can now be found in supermarkets, gas stations, and drugstores across the United States.
CBD companies are thriving. But so are scammers and fraudsters.
“People have started to see the market grow and there are some fly-by-night companies trying to make a quick buck,” Marielle Weintraub, president of the US Hemp Authority, told the Associated Press recently.
So how can you sort the legit products from the junk?
The CBD industry is so new that most people don’t know which brands to trust. There’s no Apple, Coke, Gillette, or State Farm. Planet CBD is flat: All brands hold equal value in the minds of most consumers.
At Leafly, we were puzzled too. So we did something about it.
Take it to the lab
Over the past three months we worked with Confidence Analytics, a Washington state-licensed cannabis lab and founding partner of our Leafly Certified Labs Program, to test an array of CBD products. We wanted to see which brands delivered what they promised—and which did not.
Our three-part series starts here with a look at the test results from those 47 products. In part two, we examine why CBD is so challenging to deliver in exact doses, and in part three we offer seven tips for getting the CBD you paid for.
Test results: From zero CBD to way too much
Products delivering within 20% of advertised CBD are highlighted
Is the label accurate?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to regulate CBD products, but until those rules are in place, CBD manufacturers are free to put whatever they want in their products.
A few sketchy operators have added synthetics like K2 or spice to CBD products, while others don’t bother to screen out pesticides or heavy metals.
In this unregulated era, label accuracy stands out as a first sign of quality. Industry experts we talked to were clear: If a company promises 300 mg of CBD and actually delivers 300 mg, it’s probably not cutting corners in other areas. Consumers, too, told us their first question is this: Am I actually getting CBD in this bottle?
So that’s where we started.
What we tested, and why
To find out who’s actually delivering the CBD promised on the label, we purchased 47 products from a variety of sources.
We noted the products that popped up in Google searches for terms like “best CBD products” and “cheap CBD,” and purchased many of them online. We picked up other products at national drugstore chains like Rite Aid and Walgreens.
We shopped independent grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. We even found one product at a surf shop.
What we found
Here’s the good news: Most of our tested products actually delivered CBD. The bad news: Most products didn’t deliver the exact dosage promised. Some came close. Many were in the ballpark. A few straight-up cheated their customers.
Here’s how the data broke down:
- 51% of products (24 of 47) delivered the promised CBD within 20% of the labeled dosage.
- 23% of products (11 of 47) delivered some CBD, but less than 80% of the dosage promised on the label.
- 15% of products (7 of 47) delivered more than 120% of the promised CBD.
- 11% of products (5 of 47) delivered no CBD whatsoever.
State of the industry: Room for improvement
When it comes to today’s CBD products, very few manufacturers can precisely deliver the dosage promised on the label. CBD companies don’t advertise that, but it’s a fact.
This is also a fact: These products are getting better. Full federal legalization is only 11 months old and manufacturers are improving their processes every day.
In 2015, the FDA tested 18 CBD products. None contained CBD. In 2016, the FDA repeated the test with 22 products and found 77% contained little to no CBD whatsoever. Only four products even came close to delivering the labeled dose.
Today, more than half the products we tested delivered their labeled dose. It’s worth noting that “delivered” is a term of art. Almost no brand can produce absolutely perfect CBD dosage in every batch.
A fair benchmark
To be fair to the manufacturers, we adapted the FDA’s guidelines for label accuracy regarding small amounts of nutrients in dietary supplements, which is the category CBD products most clearly resemble.
The FDA considers a supplement misbranded if it delivers a nutrient at a dose at least 20% below or 20% above the value declared on its label.
We think that’s a fair standard for CBD in 2019. So for our purposes, a product that promises 300 mg of CBD but delivers 241 mg will be considered accurately labeled. A 300 mg product that delivers 239 mg will be considered mislabeled.
Is that an uncomfortably wide variance? Yes. If we paid for 300 mg and only got 241, we’d feel shortchanged. But right now, a 20% label variance is the best you’re going to get in the CBD space.
As the CBD industry matures, consumers should demand to an ever-closing gap between CBD promised and CBD delivered. And know this: A 20% label variance is not likely to fly with the feds. When FDA regulation of CBD arrives in 2020, federal rules will likely force these companies to deliver 100% of what they’re promising or go out of business.
The trends we discovered
As we sorted through the data, a number of trends stood out.
Tinctures and gummies were the most reliable forms.
All seven tinctures we tested delivered at least 85% of the label dosage. Five of the seven came within 10% of the promised dosage. With gummies, five of the six tested brands delivered at least 84% of the promised dosage. One brand only delivered 62%, while another brand delivered the promised 25 mg per gummy exactly.
Water was the least reliable form factor.
Three of the four water brands we tested delivered no CBD at all. The fourth brand delivered only 70% of the CBD promised. Based on our tests, most “CBD water” should be more accurately labeled “water.”
Capsules delivered way more CBD than promised.
All four CBD capsule products we tested contained more than 100% of the potency on the label. Three of the four tested at or above 140% of the label potency. That’s generous but not necessarily good. Patients using CBD for medical conditions need reliable dosages, not bonus CBD.
Vape pens and topicals were all over the board.
The ten vape products we tested ranged from no CBD at all to 95% of the promised dosage. Two vape brands delivered less than 10% of their promised dosage. Six of the ten delivered less than 80% of the promised CBD. Topicals delivered a range of 37% to 152% of their promised CBD dosage. Three topicals delivered more CBD than promised, while three others delivered almost the exact dosage specified on the label.
“Hemp extract” doesn’t always mean CBD.
CBD is no longer federally illegal, but it still exists in a murky legal space. Some brands are playing it safe by promising “hemp extract,” not CBD. Yet their labels use the same dosage metric as CBD (mg, or milligrams). That confuses consumers into believing they’re getting CBD when they may not be.
Further questions (and answers)
Now that you know the promise and perils of the CBD marketplace, you have questions. Like, why can’t more companies deliver consistent doses? How do I find the ones that do? In part two of our series, we take a look at why it’s so hard to deliver label-accurate CBD, while in part three we offer tips on how to make sure you get what you pay for.