Few industries are growing quite as rapidly as the cannabis industry, with current estimations projecting the market to be worth $100bn by the end of 2026.1 To meet rising customer demand, companies are developing a large range of innovative cannabis-based products, with cannabis-based beverages emerging as one of the latest trends in an ever-transforming market.
However, while they represent a real opportunity, cannabis- and hemp-infused beverages also present unique analytical challenges given the already complicated matrices of cannabis and hemp testing, in addition to stability concerns with liquids. Add to that the differences between analyses for hot, cold, brewed, or unbrewed beverages and testing becomes more complicated still.
To help overcome these challenges and meet the quality and safety requirements and regulations of cannabis- and hemp-infused beverages, strong analytical technologies, and best practices must be employed. This will help protect consumers and strengthen brand confidence and trust.
In this article, the second installment in our series on analyzing beverages (visit here for Part I) we will look at other pieces of the puzzle to consider:
Factoring in regulations for cannabis vs. hemp
Since its legalization in multiple US states, many cannabis- and hemp-derived beverage products are appearing on the market. To understand the variation in beverages, their ingredients, and how they can be sold and marketed under different regulations, it is first important to clarify the terminology. Consumers often believe that cannabis and hemp are interchangeable terms. Both cannabis and hemp are varieties of Cannabis sativa plant species. However, hemp is classified as containing less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”), and unlike cannabis, is currently legal in the US at the federal level. The most significant difference between the two plants is the profile of cannabinoids and their concentrations.
Cannabis contains high levels of THC in its acidic form, THCA, a cannabinoid that is most known for its psychoactive properties. Different chemovars of cannabis may also contain high levels of other cannabinoids. Hemp, on the other hand, has only trace amounts of THC and THCA, but more substantial quantities of Cannabidiol (CBD) in its acidic form, CBDA, a non-psychoactive cannabis compound. Therefore, to ensure accurate testing and analysis is undertaken, cannabis labs must ensure they have robust procedures in place to monitor both cannabis and hemp products.
Tackling stability and potency
Cannabinoid infusions are being used to create ‘sleepy’ teas, energizing coffees, and carbonated sodas, and their stability and potency must be rigorously tested to ensure product safety and label accuracy.
For many testing laboratories, monitoring cannabinoids is a relatively new concept. Furthermore, determining cannabinoid concentration can become even more difficult in the presence of food and beverage matrices, which can have unexpected results on these analytes. For instance, with cannabinoid-infused hot drinks, the brewing process may not completely transfer all cannabinoids from the infused products (e.g., teabags) to hot water, resulting in significant discrepancies in the amount of CBD following the brewing process as compared to the label claim. Producers of carbonated cannabis-based drinks are looking at similar challenges because the carbonation method has been shown to impact both the potency and stability of these beverages.
To address idiosyncrasies of the carbonation method and produce a drink that matches the labeled potency of THC or CBD, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is typically used to ensure accurate measurement of these cannabinoids. In addition to rigorous potency testing of active ingredients, it is also critical to employ robust and accurate analytical methods and technologies for the determination of harmful contaminants in these products. Examples include leveraging headspace gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) for residual solvent analysis, inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) for heavy metal quantitation, and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) for pesticide & mycotoxin analysis.
As processors work for market share and to keep pace with demand, they are moving rapidly from product development to large-scale manufacturing, thereby raising the risk of neglecting to perform key, long-term stability studies on their beverage products. Emulsions may become unstable, for example, due to numerous factors in the manufacturing process and can lead to degradation of the active cannabinoid, which will result in the concentrations claimed on the label no longer being true. This is often highly dependent on the type of emulsifier and formulation and physicochemical factors impacting the system. Therefore, using innovative tools for monitoring emulsions and nano-emulsions is critical to ensure that products meet consumer taste and texture demands.
Testing for adulteration
As with any rapidly evolving market, there is the risk and opportunity for fraudulent players to enter the playing field. The high demand for CBD products and relatively high prices for legitimate cannabinoids may tempt some to adulterate products with cheaper ingredients to boost profits in beverages and other cannabis/cannabis-based products. As such, many within the industry recognize the need for new methods to accurately determine and monitor cannabinoids to safeguard consumer health. The introduction of new regulations has helped reduce the number of products that exploit technicalities. However, due to the novelty of cannabinoid-based beverages, it is often difficult to know if the product is truly up to regulatory standards.
In the US, CBD beverages should contain almost no detectable THC. The 2018 Farm Bill states that THC concentrations cannot exceed “0.3% on a dry weight basis”, otherwise it becomes a cannabis-containing product.2 This means that as long as these products do not exceed 0.3% in THC concentration, they are validated to be non-THC containing and no further testing is required. Consumer safety is therefore in doubt as the products are not tested for contaminants which could be harmful to health. On the other hand, beverage producers in Canada must test their products following Canada’s Cannabis Act, which places no real distinction between CBD and THC products.3 Therefore, all cannabinoid-containing products (those containing CBD and/or THC) must be tested to abide by the country’s regulations.
Choosing in-house or outsourced beverage analysis?
When ensuring that cannabis-based products meet regulatory requirements, there is a difficult choice between partnering with an accredited third-party testing lab (under ISO 17025, GMP and cGMP) or utilizing in-house quality control. Whereas outsourcing is a sure way to maintain the gold standard for analytical product testing, in-house labs can also achieve rapid, repeatable, and accurate results by investing in proper instrumentation, quality management system (QMS), lab space, and hiring expert staff. Whether a lab chooses to use a third-party for their analysis or keep it in-house, it is essential to ensure that the instruments used provide rapid data, with result reproducibility across multiple devices.
While larger players in the cannabis market may have the financial means to establish in-house quality testing capabilities, newer food processing companies may struggle to stay up-to-date with testing regulations alone. In these instances, working with an accredited third-party lab can be a great way to gain a collaborator with regulatory and chemistry knowledge who can positively contribute to the quality and consistency of the final product. Outsourcing can provide a newer company with tried, tested, and optimized methods that can expedite the overall product development process.
It’s all about the process
Ensuring effective sample preparation can be an overlooked and time-consuming part of any analytical procedure, yet it is often the most critical. Due to the novelty of cannabis-infused beverages, there is a lack of standard sample preparation procedures, which can provide many challenges for production and quality control.
Due to the widely varying product types, formulations, and content differences from plant to plant, inadequate sample preparation can lead to improper results for a lab, ranging between batches of product. Ensuring that in-house quality control or an outsourced lab utilizes rapid sample preparation techniques can provide a great boost to productivity and result in optimal high-throughput testing throughout the process workflow.
The future of cannabis and CBD beverage analysis
With the cannabis and hemp beverage markets set to exponentially rise over the next decade, ensuring the quality and safety of these new, innovative products should remain paramount throughout development processes. With a steady increase of research into cannabinoids, and with changes to legalization and regulation, the future of the cannabis beverage industry will have to overcome considerable challenges to keep up with new consumer demands.
Ensuring these products are regulated to the same standard as traditional cannabis-based products is another challenge that must be overcome. Without a regulatory body closely monitoring quality and consistency factors in cannabis products, consumers will have no way of knowing what their products truly contain.
Safeguarding consumer health has to remain a priority for the processor, and by leveraging intuitive, powerful, and accurate cannabis analysis solutions, manufacturers can ensure their drinks are safe and attractive to customers.
For more information please visit: https://www.perkinelmer.com/category/cannabis-analysis and https://sigmaanalytical.com/
1. Fortune Business Insights. Cannabis/Marijuana Market Size, Share and Industry Analysis By Type (Flowers/Buds and Concentrates), By Application (Medical, Recreational (Edibles and Topicals), and Industrial Hemp), and Regional Forecast 2019-2026. (2019).
2. McMinimy, M. The 2018 Farm Bill (P.L. 115-334): Summary and Side-by-Side Comparison. (2019).
3. Minister of Justice. Cannabis Act. laws-lois.justice.gc.ca 1–226 (2018).