The Trouble with Producing Cannabis-infused Edible Products
A brief perspective
Robert W. Martin, Ph. D.
The production of food for consumers and/or patients is a serious concern. Ingredients must be sourced and proven to be reliable, processes need to be adjusted for safety and economics, and packaging needs to be selected, all before distribution and use by the public. The nutrition facts panel describes the contents and alerts the consumer to any allergens and of caloric contributions from the food. It is the responsibility of any producer to produce a consistent safe product for ingestion and that is clearly labeled as to its contents. In fact, liability is shouldered by the producer.
As of now, there are hundreds of infused edible products being created for the emerging marijuana industry in the United States. Our laboratory commonly analyzes products like chocolates, baked goods, hard candies, popcorn, cotton candy, granola, jellies, honey, liquid drinks, jerky, and ice creams, to name a few. The creators of these products primarily use Cannabis concentrates or butter to infuse THC and CBD into their products. Large producers inform us that concentrate formulations are necessary to meet market demand and operational efficiencies. Very rarely will an edible producer use raw Cannabis flower to produce an infused edible. Those practices occur more commonly in non-commercial or smaller operations that often supply one to five patients.
The most common issue with producing an accurate edible-infusion is the misunderstanding of homogeneity. Efficient mixing is difficult for all food products and great care should be taken to fully homogenize a mix to evenly distribute its components, especially cannabinoids. Losses are common in food production for many reasons and producers should formulate to accommodate for such uncontrollable incidents. This problem can result in a food product exhibiting contradicting results from different locations of the product (i.e. left side v right side) or overall weaker than expected finished products.
In Cannabis-infused foods THC/CBD molecules readily bond to lipid/oil components of food matrices and require, at times, a great deal of energy to distribute the molecules evenly within a food. High heat and shear are required in most processes to allow this even distribution (diffusion) of molecules to take place. In heat-produced products, the temperature during pasteurization is usually sufficient if arduous mixing has previously occurred. Secondly, it is often difficult infusing non-lipid containing items with cannabinoids - while glycerin infusion is available, it is much more difficult to create a potent product. In general, it's advisable to rely upon lipids or alcohol for infusion. These problems are often exacerbated with scale up of process or products that are produced in cold conditions.
Microbiological testing of food products has a long history and is supported by decades of research and real time data. It is recommended that AOAC standards be adopted and in the meantime we suggest
- Analysis: AOAC 986.33, AOAC 991.14, AOAC 997.02
Measurement of colony forming units (CFU’s) using plating technology
Aerobic plate counts (APC) = <100,000 CFU’s
E.coli = 0
Coliform = 0
Pseudomonas = 0
Salmonella = 0
Testing Edibles for Cannabinoid Content
Cannabinoid testing of infused edibles creates a number of challenges for the QA laboratory tasked with their analysis. First and foremost is the issue of removing the THC/CBD from the food matrix. As stated above, THC/CBD molecules have a strong affinity for fat/oils in the food products and are not readily released into solution for subsequent analysis by HPLC or GC-FID. If the cannabinoids are not fully extracted, the result from this incomplete process will be low THC/CBD numbers for the food product. Secondly, if the food is improperly mixed the results may be even more confusing, exhibiting either very high or very low THC/CBD numbers dependent upon which part of the product is exposed to solution. The majority of food products are already fully decarboxylated (THCA to THC the psychoactive form) because most edible producers use products (oils, butters) that are already fully decarboxylated and can be measured accurately by GC-FID. Testing via HPLC, however, can give a producer information on the efficiency and completeness of the decree process.
Recently, a great deal of press has been generated regarding the inaccuracies in the Cannabis-infused edible arena. Articles are being posted exhibiting dosage numbers that don’t match their claims. There are reasons for these discrepancies that might not be obvious to all. The majority of commercial Cannabis laboratories fashion their THC/CBD testing after the process used in flowers. That is, food product is placed in solution and THC is allowed to diffuse from the food product to the solution. If this is the only protocol followed by a testing lab low THC/CBD numbers will be generated. It is important that other subsequent processes be instituted to release the THC/CBD into solution and remove interfering portions of the food matrix. If this isn't performed, food molecules enter the HPLC or GC-FID and cause havoc on the columns thus drastically shortening their functional lives.
I strongly suggest each edible producer work closely with your local laboratory to establish an understanding of your process to optimize your products for safety and accuracy. The lab industry can assist in setting up batch testing for microbiological screening and supply mixing charts designed to help you hit your target in dosage. Every product is different and requires special attention.
Dr. Robert Martin received his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Botany/Mycology from Ohio University. He remained to teach at Ohio prior to entering Kraft Foods as head of their Microstructure Research Group. Dr. Martin excelled in the creation of new raw material specifications for novel food ingredients and quickly became an expert in product development and quality assurance. In 1993, Dr. Martin established an analytical laboratory and led research and development for Dreyer's Ice Cream.
In 2002, Dr. Martin retired from the food industry after contributing seven patents and several scientific papers. He soon began MRM Consulting Group where he served clients at Con Agra, Mrs. Fields, Nestle, and Coca Cola to name but a few. In 2009, Dr. Martin co-founded CW Analytical as Chief Operating Officer and continues to be inspired to bring quality assurance strategies to the medical marijuana industry. In 2010, Dr. Martin founded the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories, a non profit organization dedicated to standards and practices, where he continues as Executive Director.