Beverage Testing Part 1: Complex Cannabinoids – Overcoming the Challenges of Cannabis Beverage Analysis
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This is the first of a two-part series in which authors, Kaveh Kahen, president and CEO of Sigma Analytical Services, and Toby Astill, global market manager for cannabis and hemp at PerkinElmer, Inc. discuss the rapidly evolving market for cannabis-based beverages. Here, we will be detailing how cannabis labs can leverage powerful analytical technologies to help ensure novel products meet consumer safety and quality demands.
As the recreational market for cannabis continues to grow and mature, consumers in North America are now looking for new ways to experience cannabis products.
Cannabis- and hemp-derived beverages, as just one example, are in a prime position to meet the demands for novel mediums. Across the cannabis industry, we are witnessing the rapid development of new cannabis-infused products such as water, coffee, tea and carbonated sodas. These segments are further broken down into cannabidiol- (CBD) infused drinks, often derived from hemp plants and sold into the CBD market, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-infused focused beverages, extracted from cannabis plants and sold in legal states in the US or countries such as Canada.
Due to the vast product range and complexities of cannabis analysis, creating world-class cannabis beverages that meet safety and quality regulations and brand standards is a big challenge. To aid companies and labs in developing novel cannabis beverages, powerful analytical solutions are key to enhance cannabis testing and developmental workflows.
There are many best practice areas where strong, analytical science solutions can play a role in product development and manufacture including contamination control and contamination monitoring of cannabis-derived products including:
Consistent contamination control
From plant to finished product, cannabis-based beverages can come into contact with several different contaminants. During the cultivation stage, pesticides are often used to help increase yields by protecting cannabis plants from pests and diseases. To confirm pesticide residues are effectively removed before these products make it to market, many processors are using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) technology for rapid pesticide analysis. Owing to its high selectivity and sensitivity, as well as the ability to separate complex matrices, LC-MS/MS rapidly allows the complete identification of a cannabis product’s molecular make-up.
One key benefit of a powerful LC-MS/MS instrument is its ability to accurately identify many pesticides (lists vary based on local regulations) as well as several mycotoxins at extremely low concentrations, providing processors with a reliable tool for low-level detection of such contaminants.
Furthermore, due to the conditions and locations in which cannabis is grown, residual heavy metals can be present in the picked flowers. Concentrated oils made from these flowers, which can potentially contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, could be incredibly harmful to the consumer, highlighting the vital need for accurate technologies such as inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) to rapidly monitor contamination in liquids.
Alongside monitoring potential contaminants in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) products, it is also crucial to accurately monitor other cannabinoids as cannabis plants contain over 100 different cannabinoids, and several of the lesser-understood compounds, including cannabichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN), are increasingly being investigated for their effects on human health. Therefore, getting a handle on the major cannabinoids is important to help assure product safety, quality, and consistency in beverages.
Accurate methods for cannabinoid monitoring can also help enhance stability studies. When manufacturing a new cannabis beverage, stability is a key challenge to overcome, due to cannabinoid hydrophobicity and difficulties in mixing with water. With many companies trying to rapidly bring new products to market, long-term stability studies can sometimes be overlooked. Instability can greatly impact our understanding of products’ potency over time and lead to inaccurate label claims and unappealing products. Additionally, without stability studies, manufacturers have no way of ensuring that products will meet their quality requirements after a long period on the shelf.
Challenges with complex matrices, difficult potency testing and long-term stability studies must be overcome by manufacturers to produce a premium product, so implementing intuitive technologies is a key consideration for any testing lab. For rapid analysis, Fourier transform near-infrared spectroscopy (FT-NIR) enables rapid analysis. Whereas in workflows where sensitivity is necessary, tools such as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) provide labs with the ability to accurately detect and determine primary cannabinoids simultaneously.
To help align the flavor of beverage products with quality expectations, gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (GC-MS) with headspace sampling can be used for positive identification of the many terpenes found in cannabis. This positive identification also helps products meet safety regulations.
Laws and legislations
Another challenge faced by beverage processors is meeting complex and evolving regulations. An example of the impact changing regulations can have on cannabis products can be seen in Canada, where an evolving legal landscape has recently seen the legalization of edible cannabis items. This legislation is projected to attract 1.5 million new consumers into the cannabis market.1 In the United States, with some states allowing hemp-based products but not cannabis-based products, and with current global regulatory differences, beverage companies face severe challenges to demonstrate that they can navigate the ever-changing environment.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the potential opportunities provided by cannabis and its derivative compounds, and regulations are constantly under review. The introduction of these regulatory revisions is also helping to reduce the number of incorrectly regulated products from being released. In particular, many Canadian beverages and edibles producers are finding they need increased funding to comply with Health Canada’s three-month stability test requirements. Food and beverages infused with CBD or THC now require the body to approve their product, providing evidence it remains stable and delivers consistent potency levels for at least three months.2
This also promotes facilities to enforce regular upkeep, maintaining a premium quality workflow and product. By working with an instrument provider that fully understands the challenging regulatory landscape, processors of cannabis-based beverages can consistently meet the set standards and navigate the complex market.
Advancing technologies with automation
Looking towards the future, further advancements to analytical technologies will undoubtedly help confirm the safety of cannabis-based products, such as adding automation instruments and software for enhancing workflow. Using rapid and accurate automated technologies will give beverage processors a faster, more in-depth view of their contents, helping to keep consumers safe and making sure the potency on the label is both correct and compliant with regulations.
With the exponential growth of the lucrative market for cannabis edibles and beverages, brands are continuing to infuse cannabis products to maximize their market share and meet rising consumer demands. New and innovative infusions, such as teas and carbonated drinks, are all products beginning to dominate their respective marketplaces. By leveraging up-to-date regulatory controls with key investment in high-quality instrumentation, processors and brands will stay ahead within the field of cannabis beverages.
The second installment of our series will examine how companies are implementing cutting-edge technologies to deliver product differentiation and guarantee growth in an increasingly competitive cannabis-beverages market.
- Williams, G. Edibles to Add 1.5 Million New Users to Canadian Cannabis Market. Cannabis: Investing News (2019).
- Newhart, B. Six months after legalization, Canada’s cannabis edibles market is stalled: ’We’re just at the beginning of professionalizing this industry. beveragedaily.com (2020).