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With so many CBD shops popping up, it’s easy to step into the nearest store and grab whatever product you see first. But CBD, or cannabidiol, is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and quality can vary dramatically between brands and products.
Here’s what you need to know about CBD oil quality and sourcing and vetting CBD brands to find the best one for you.
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“Knowing the source of the hemp used in making a CBD product is important because it gives you insight into [a variety of components],” says Vanessa Niles, M.D., a medical cannabis expert at Heally, a telehealth platform for alternative medicine based in New York. Source information can indicate whether the hemp is sustainably farmed; organic; contains pesticides, heavy metals or other fertilizer chemicals; and has been tested by a third-party laboratory.
“Harmful additives can undermine the quality and safety of CBD oil,” says Dr. Niles. For instance, hemp plants treated with nonorganic chemicals can create a bitter taste. Even worse, you may end up ingesting those chemicals in the final product in harmful amounts, which can result in serious health conditions, such as kidney damage and cancer.
Variability in quality and lack of regulation in the CBD market ultimately affect how consumers feel about the cannabinoid. In fact, 21% of U.S. adults think CBD should still be deemed illegal and 19% remain on the fence with this issue, according to a recent Forbes Health survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by OnePoll.
Here are a few important factors to look into when buying CBD oil.
A COA detail compounds found in a CBD product. Sometimes, you can easily find a product’s COA on the company’s website. If not, the company may send you a copy if you request one.
If a company doesn’t have a COA or won’t send you one, consider it a red flag. At best, it indicates a lack of transparency. Worst case scenario, the company isn’t testing the safety or validity of its products, or it received problematic results that it doesn’t want to publish.
According to Steven Phan, founder of Come Back Daily, a CBD dispensary in New York City, trustworthy COAs should feature at least three panels:
“The easiest red flag is when companies just have a cannabinoid panel, because they’re choosing to not spend the extra money to be transparent with their customers,” says Phan.
A COA may also include contents like terpenes (organic compounds associated with cannabis aromas), mycotoxins (mold toxins) and residual solvents (organic volatile chemicals).
The use of a third-party laboratory for product testing is another important aspect of a COA and a company’s trustworthiness. Results are more likely to be accurate and unbiased with third-party testing. You may also want to research the third-party lab itself to ensure it’s also a trustworthy and qualified entity.
Experts recommend exclusively shopping for CBD products that are tested by third-party laboratories and provide recent COAs on their contents to ensure you’re consuming what the label suggests. Even with these two boxes checked, you can’t be too careful. A small 2023 study conducted by supplement company NextEvo Naturals and performed by Coral Reef Labs found large inconsistencies between COAs and product labels for 50% of 16 randomly selected CBD products purchased from large chain retailers in Pennsylvania locations and online. Most CBD gummy products tested didn’t contain as much CBD as their labels suggested while the CBD oil and capsule products exceeded the CBD amounts listed on their labels.
Unless you’re buying pure CBD oil (called CBD isolate), you’re likely ingesting other cannabinoids and compounds called terpenes in products labeled “broad spectrum CBD” and “full spectrum CBD,” the latter of which includes small traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When several cannabinoids are present together, they can produce a mutual enhancement called the “entourage effect,” which can increase the product’s overall wellness benefits.
Common cannabinoids—in addition to CBD and THC—include cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabidivarin (CBDV) and cannabinol (CBN).
Common terpenes include limonene (known for its citrusy, sweet and tart flavor), pinene (known for its piney flavor) and sabinene (known for its woody, citrusy and spicy flavor).
Generally, CBD oil is mixed with an inert carrier oil. The most popular carrier oil is medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, which is often found in coconuts. MCT oil is easily digestible and has anti-inflammatory properties that boost its overall wellness benefits. You can also find CBD oil mixed with almond oil, sunflower oil, olive oil or vegetable oil, giving you more options to find what works best for you.
Organic CBD oil is free of synthetic chemicals like certain pesticides. In order to claim a product is organic, a company or part of its operations must be Certified Organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not all CBD companies provide USDA Certified Organic products, and some may claim select ingredients are organic when a product as a whole isn’t certified. You can see which CBD oil companies are Certified Organic on the USDA website.
Non-GMO CBD oil comes from hemp plants that aren’t genetically altered through external intervention. The non-GMO (genetically modified organism) designation is verified by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization. Many CBD brands claim to provide non-GMO products without official verification. Ask for more information regarding where their hemp plants come from to be sure.
Vegan CBD oil is easy to find since CBD comes from the hemp plant and animal products aren’t used to extract the oils or create tinctures. It gets tricky, however, when CBD oil is incorporated into products like edibles, which may contain gelatin or dairy.
Gluten-free CBD oil is also common but not guaranteed, as some hemp plants are grown around other crops that contain gluten. Tinctures, capsules and topical products are usually gluten-free while CBD edibles like gummies are more likely to contain gluten. If you have a gluten allergy, check the ingredients list and sourcing information of any CBD product you buy.
Forbes Health covers CBD and cannabis products in accordance with FTC guidelines. Learn more about Forbes Health’s practices and policies regarding how we cover CBD and cannabis as a publisher.
Information provided on Forbes Health is for educational purposes only. Your health and wellness is unique to you, and the products and services we review may not be right for your circumstances. We do not offer individual medical advice, diagnosis or treatment plans. For personal advice, please consult with a medical professional.
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Lauren Silva, a freelance writer in New York City, believes in feeling good in your body and making that experience accessible to everyone across generations. The proof is in her ever-piling browser tabs and newsletters, which help her stay on top of the latest wellness trends. When she’s not researching sustainable alternatives to her everyday products, Lauren is likely attempting to make a dent in her “TBR” book pile.
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is a double board-certified integrative and family medicine physician with expertise in functional and holistic medicine. She is the medical director at Revive Atlanta MD, a comprehensive clinic focused on total body healing, including decreasing inflammation, improving hormonal imbalance, helping women get pregnant, weight loss resistance, chronic stress, gut health and more. She has been featured on The Daily Mail, Fox5 Atlanta, CBS46, 11Alive, wsbtv, Popsugar, mindbodygreen, The Washington Post, well+good, Vogue, Parade, Livestrong, HuffPost and more.