CBD: From Plant to Product

alphagreen how cbd is made

While prohibition and regulatory restrictions have impeded progress in the past, the legal market within the cannabis industry is rapidly emerging, as more jurisdictions begin to legalise medical use. This movement is driven by efficacy, allowing medicinal cannabis products to gain traction with the medical community and general population, as well as removing the stigma surrounding the plant.

Aside from healthcare, cannabis plants also have applications in textiles, recreation and beauty. Because of these factors, the global legal cannabis market is expected to double in size over the next five years and is estimated to reach a value of $103.9b USD by 2024. This growth in revenue will be driven by the increasing adoption of cannabis-based medicines in the treatment of conditions such as chronic pain, cancer and epilepsy.

Medical cannabis vs recreational cannabis

Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana (MMJ), is a plant-based medicine made from the cannabis plant that is prescribed by physicians. The average cannabis plant contains close to 120 cannabinoids, which are pharmacologically active compounds that are associated with the therapeutic benefits of cannabis consumption. The most well-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Cannabis plants that are used for medical purposes must comply with strict regulations and adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). The current standard for medical cannabis in most jurisdictions is compliance with EuGMP. Medical cannabis is typically grown in controlled environments and then undergoes rigorous testing to ensure that the product is high-quality and free of contaminants, such as pesticides and mould.

Medical cannabis can further be separated into pharmaceutical cannabis and nutraceutical cannabis. Pharmaceutical cannabis refers to analysing the pharmacological properties of the plant and its phytochemicals to create medicines that are able to treat specific disease symptoms. Nutraceutical cannabis refers to cannabis-derived dietary supplements that are taken to improve one’s health and contribute to wellness.

alphagreen academy

The nutraceutical market is popular and looks set to grow even bigger, estimated to reach a value of $722.49b USD by 2026. The most common cannabis nutraceuticals are CBD-infused products such as CBD oil, powder (isolate), capsules, edibles (e.g. gummies) and even beverages. It is estimated that the market for CBD-infused products will reach a value of $22b USD by 2022.

Recreational cannabis refers to cannabis that is bought for adult-use or non-medical purposes. It is typically higher in THC than CBD, due to the psychoactive effects that THC provides. While recreational cannabis can still be high-quality, it normally isn’t held to the same stringent regulations or testing.

Medical cannabis is legal in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 22 European countries (including the UK and Germany), while recreational cannabis is largely considered illegal in most countries. The exceptions to this are Canada and 11 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia (DC) in the US.

CBD - benefits & uses

alphagreen how cbd is made

Although there are a variety of medical cannabis products on the market, the ones that are most commonly used are ones that contain CBD. Products that contain CBD are also associated with a wide range of therapeutic benefits and less undesirable side-effects when compared to other medical cannabis products, such as dry flower.

But what is CBD? The acronym CBD stands for cannabidiol, a molecule known as a cannabinoid. CBD is specifically a phytocannabinoid, meaning that it is found entirely within the cannabis plant. In contrast, the term endocannabinoid is used to define cannabinoids produced within the body by the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

CBD isn’t just found in the cannabis plant, however. Hemp plants also contain high concentrations of CBD and are often preferred over cannabis when it comes to extracting CBD to make products. Hemp is usually easier to cultivate and make products from due to legislation (such as the 2018 US Farm Bill), but the chemical composition is another reason.

THC is another phytocannabinoid and is a psychoactive compound that is responsible for the ‘high’ associated with cannabis. While cannabis consumption is normally linked to feeling ‘stoned’, not all cannabinoids contribute to the high. CBD is non-intoxicating and only mildly psychoactive. This means that CBD products allow the consumer to receive a lot of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without any of the intense psychoactive effects, such as an impairment in motor functioning, memory and judgement.

alphagreen academy

One of the main reasons there is a lot of interest in CBD products is the wide variety of health benefits that CBD has been associated with. The major condition that CBD has been effective in treating is pain. Some of the pain conditions that CBD has been effective in managing include inflammatory pain, neuropathic pain and central pain, which all fall under the umbrella of chronic pain.

The way CBD relieves pain is by inhibiting the release of inflammatory proteins. As such, CBD displays anti-inflammatory properties which make it useful in managing conditions such as arthritis and other joint-related problems.

Anxiety and insomnia are two other health concerns which CBD has seen some success in treating. There is research to suggest that CBD produces significant anxiolytic effects and can cause a reduction in anxiety symptoms. While CBD’s effects on sleep are not yet fully understood, it has proven to be an effective sleep aid. This is mainly due to its ability to treat conditions that are comorbid with insomnia, such as anxiety and pain.

Lastly, there is lots of interest in CBD’s ability to alleviate the symptoms of epilepsy. While the mechanism of action is still undergoing research, CBD has displayed the ability to reduce the frequency and duration of the seizures that epilepsy is characterised by. CBD has also shown promise in neuroprotection, inhibiting the growth of tumours and managing acne, amongst others.

Full-spectrum CBD vs CBD isolate

alphagreen how cbd is made

As there is plenty of interest in CBD and its related health benefits, innovation has lead to a variety of different CBD products hitting the market. CBD oil, tinctures, topicals, capsules and edibles can all be found in places where CBD is legal. This diversity of products is great for consumers as it enables them to choose the product that’s exactly right for their needs or the one they find most effective.

While this variety of products can be daunting to CBD newcomers, the main distinction that consumers should know is the difference between products that contain full-spectrum CBD and products that contain CBD isolate.

Full-spectrum CBD refers to products that contain CBD in conjunction with other compounds that are collected in the extraction process. Terpenes, flavonoids and other cannabinoids such as THC, THCa, CBG and CBN are just some of the additional compounds that can be found in full-spectrum products.

The wide-ranging effects of cannabis are not just the responsibility of one molecule. The ‘Entourage Effect’ describes the way in which numerous cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids work together synergistically and contribute to a range of therapeutic effects. Consumers choosing full-spectrum products do so in order to experience additional benefits (e.g. the ones associated with THC) and not just the ones that CBD can provide.

alphagreen academy

There is also a category of CBD products that are labelled as ‘broad-spectrum CBD’. This term refers to products that contain a wide variety of additional compounds, such as the ones found in full-spectrum products, but contain no traces of THC.

In contrast, CBD isolate products are pure CBD. This composition is the one that is most commonly used in clinical trials involving cannabidiol. CBD isolate normally comes in the form of a colourless and odourless powder and can sometimes be found in crystal form, but this is less common.

This powder is produced by removing any additional compounds from full-spectrum CBD extracts, leaving just the CBD powder behind. CBD isolate is usually ingested directly or used as a food additive. Consuming CBD isolate sublingually is the fastest and most efficient method of absorption.

Full-spectrum CBD products provide a wider range of benefits than CBD isolate, mainly due to the number of additional compounds. While this is the case, more is not always better or suitable for everyone. Consumers looking for a specific therapeutic benefit that CBD provides should stick to using CBD isolate in order to avoid any unwanted side-effects. CBD isolate is also becoming popular amongst athletes and other professionals who receive frequent drug testing due to the absence of THC.

CBD extraction

alphagreen how cbd is made

In order to create these CBD products, all the relevant components must be extracted from either hemp or cannabis plants. The main compounds that are extracted from these plants in order to create a product are cannabinoids, such as CBD and terpenes, which are responsible for how the plants taste and smell.

While the goal of extraction is to collect these molecules, the other objective is to avoid collecting any undesirable materials, such as fats, waxes and chlorophyll. The process by which these undesirable elements are removed is known as ‘winterisation’. It involves the filtration of the crude oil extract until all these elements have been removed, leaving behind a refined product.

The remaining product can then be refined further in a process known as short path distillation. This is a similar process to winterisation but involves an additional heating step, where different boiling points are utilised in order to isolate specific compounds.

Below is a summary of the main methods for CBD extraction, with the pros and cons of each method detailed.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

alphagreen how cbd is made

This method involves the use of supercritical carbon dioxide to extract CBD oil from the plant material. To obtain supercritical CO2, different temperatures and pressure are applied to gaseous carbon dioxide until it is converted into a supercritical liquid. This supercritical CO2 contains the properties of both a gas and a liquid, which is why this process is sometimes referred to as Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE).

At the start of the extraction process, one pressurised chamber will contain the supercritical CO2, while a second chamber contains hemp or cannabis plant matter. The CO2 breaks down the hemp or cannabis, causing CBD and other compounds to separate from the plant material. This CO2 is repeatedly pumped through the extraction vessel at a sustained pressure until all the desired compounds are collected.

One this process is completed, the supercritical CO2 is converted back into a gas, leaving behind a highly concentrated resin. This resin can undergo further refinement, and its potency is easily modifiable, allowing the creation of CBD products with specific concentrations.

Although this process is quite expensive due to the need for specialised equipment, it is the preferred method of most CBD product manufacturers. It’s an extremely efficient and safe process, capable of producing extracts with high concentrations of CBD.

Steam Distillation

This method involves the use of steam to extract CBD oil from the plant material. The hemp or cannabis material is contained within a flask that has an inlet and an outlet. The inlet connects to a separate flask containing water, while the outlet connects to a condenser tube.

The flask that contains water is heated until the water starts to boil and releases steam. This steam travels into the flask that contains the plant matter and separates the vapours that contain CBD oil. The oil and water mixture is condensed in the condenser tube and later distilled to extract the CBD oil from the water. 

Steam distillation is a method with a long history of use but is no longer the preferred method for CBD extraction, due to its inefficiency. This method requires a significantly larger amount of plant material than CO2 extraction, and the specific CBD concentrations are more difficult to modify. There is also the potential that if the steam is too hot, it can damage the extract and alter its chemical composition by overheating cannabinoids.

Solvent Extraction

alphagreen how cbd is made

This method involves the use of a solvent to extract CBD oil from the plant material. This is a similar method to steam distillation as it creates a mixture of CBD oil with a solvent (water in the case of steam distillation). This mixture undergoes evaporation, leaving behind a pure CBD oil.

The solvents typically used in this process are either hydrocarbons (e.g. petroleum, butane or propane) or natural solvents (e.g. ethanol or olive oil). Solvent extraction is much more efficient than steam distillation, but it also comes with some risks.

Hydrocarbon solvent residue can be toxic and carcinogenic if they turn up in CBD products. This occurs when the solvent residue isn’t entirely eliminated in the evaporation step, which is uncommon but can still happen. To avoid the presence of any toxic residues, natural solvents can be utilised, but these also have some negatives.

When using natural solvents such as ethanol, molecules such as chlorophyll can be extracted along with the CBD, giving the extract an unpleasant taste. This isn’t such a problem for products such as CBD capsules or topicals but has a huge impact on edible and inhaled CBD products, such as gummies and vape juices.

The biggest issue with natural solvent extraction is that the extract typically contains smaller concentrations of CBD than extracts produced via the other methods. This is mainly due to the fact that natural solvents don’t evaporate as easily as the other mediums that are used more commonly.

alphagreen academy

Extraction Method

Pros

Cons

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

High efficiency

High CBD concentrations

Easily modifiable concentrations

No toxic residue

Expensive equipment

Complex system to learn

Steam Distillation

Inexpensive

No toxic residue

Inefficient

Inconsistent CBD concentrations

Potential for overheating

Hydrocarbon Solvent Extraction

Efficient

Inexpensive

Consistent CBD concentrations

Potential for toxic residue

Scrutinised by legislators and regulators

Natural Solvent Extraction

Efficient

Inexpensive

Easily scalable

Low CBD concentrations

Extracts chlorophyll

Flammable - fume hood required

What happens after CBD is extracted?

alphagreen how cbd is made

After extraction, you are normally left with a ‘full-spectrum’ CBD extract. In order to obtain CBD isolate, this extract will undergo further filtration and boiling until all other compounds are removed. Either of these extracts are then added to other substances to create new CBD products. For example, CBD oils and tincture typically consist of a CBD extract mixed with a carrier oil, such as hempseed oil or coconut oil.

The main reason that CBD is diluted with carrier oil is to improve the absorption of the CBD by the gut. The body’s gastrointestinal tract (GIT) has two separate pathways for absorption: a water-soluble pathway and a fat-soluble pathway. Water-soluble compounds can traverse the lining of the gut and enter the bloodstream but fat-soluble compounds such as CBD cannot. c

Fat-soluble substances have to be packaged into micelles that enter the bloodstream through the lymphatic system. When CBD is ingested alongside other fats (e.g. carrier oils), a signal is sent to the rest of the body to prepare for fat absorption. This priming effect ultimately increases the amount of CBD that your body can absorb.

Some other reasons that manufacturers use carrier oils are that they make dosing CBD more accurate and consistent as well as providing additional health benefits. For example, coconut oil has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, while olive oil can reduce cardiovascular disease risk.

Below is a summary of the most popular carrier oils, with pros and cons detailed for each.

Carrier Oils

Pros

Cons

MCT Oil

Inexpensive

High solubility - high potency CBD

Absorbed quickly and efficiently

No additional phytochemicals and antioxidants

No flavour

Highly processed

Hemp Seed Oil

Ideal ratio of fatty acids

Rich in hemp phytochemicals

Unique herby flavour

Lower solubility than MCT oil

Not suited for high potency CBD

More expensive than MCT oil

Grape Seed Oil

Inexpensive

Antioxidant & anti-inflammatory

Rich source of phytonutrients

Slow absorption time

Lower solubility than MCT oil

Olive Oil

Rich source of phytonutrients

Additional health benefits

Lower solubility than most oils

Potentially undesirable flavour

Vegetable Glycerine

Inexpensive

Pleasant sweet flavour

Can be used in a vaporiser

Lower solubility than other oils

Sticky consistency

alphagreen academy

Terpenes & essential oil flavourings

alphagreen how cbd is made

Cannabinoids such as CBD are often viewed as the main therapeutic compounds found with cannabis, but a case for terpenes could also be made. Terpenes are phytochemicals that can be found in a wide variety of plants, including cannabis and hemp. They’re known for providing plants with their flavours and aroma but this isn’t their only function. 

Research has shown that certain terpenes have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-oxidant, antidepressant and sedative properties (to name but a few) and can provide a wide range of health benefits. It is also thought that terpenes heavily contribute to the ‘Entourage Effect’ which was mentioned earlier.

This is one of the reasons why manufacturers choose to leave terpenes in their CBD extracts and why full-spectrum CBD products are seen as providing a wider range of benefits. In some cases, the cannabis or hemp plants don’t contain high quantities of a certain cannabinoid, so some manufacturers will supplement their extracts with additional terpenes. The most common terpenes found in CBD products are myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, pinene, humulene and linalool.

If you don’t like the way your CBD product tastes, changing the terpene profile of your extract can result in a more agreeable flavour. The main way to achieve this is by mixing it with an essential oil. Essential oils have many applications and can either be utilised via ingestion and aromatherapy. As CBD oil comes from a plant and provides a wide range of therapeutic benefits, it is also sometimes considered an essential oil.

To change the flavour of your product, just mix drops of your chosen food-grade essential oil with your product until it is to your liking. Some of the most popular essential oils for mixing are vanilla and peppermint, but others include anis, bergamot, ginger, grapefruit, lemon and spearmint.

DIY CBD products

alphagreen how cbd is made

If mixing essential oils into your CBD products seemed exciting, then you might consider making your own. Buying CBD products from a retailer or manufacturer has its benefits of course, as this verifies their quality and potency, but making your own CBD-infused products can also be rewarding. The easiest way to do this is by utilising CBD oil or CBD isolate.

Making your own CBD oil at home is also an option, which you can then infuse into other ingestible products. To do this, simply infuse CBD isolate into one of the aforementioned carrier oils, such as MCT or olive oil. Be sure to measure out your powder carefully to achieve your desired concentration, which you can then modify easily if necessary.

To utilise this CBD oil you can apply a few drops sublingually, for fast results, or you can cook and bake with it. Keep in mind that high temperatures can cause the CBD to lose some potency. It is recommended that you cook/bake with a temperature less than 175°C and never higher than 200°C.

alphagreen academy

If you want to create your own CBD topicals, then infuse any skin-safe oils with CBD isolate. One of the most popular oils to make topicals with is coconut oil. CBD topicals can be used to relieve sore muscles or ease inflammation and joint pain, which is helpful for conditions such as arthritis.

Lastly, with the rise of CBD beverages in the cannabis market you may be tempted into making your own. Luckily, this is also a really simple process. CBD isolate blends smoothly with drinks that aren’t too fatty, so drinks such as juice or fruit smoothies are a popular choice for making CBD-infused drinks. If fruit isn’t really your thing then don’t worry. CBD isolate works just as well when added to other drinks such as tea or coffee.

Conclusion

alphagreen how cbd is made

The discovery of cannabidiol is one that has opened the door to cannabis-based medicines and their unlimited potential. It is crazy to think that a small molecule which is easily extracted from cannabis and hemp plants has such a wide range of health benefits.  While these reported benefits and claims from manufacturers sometimes seem too good to be true, there is a growing base of clinical evidence to suggest that CBD is an effective treatment in a wide range of conditions.

As the research into cannabis-based medicines continues, manufacturing practices will only become more sophisticated and efficient over time. New processes for extraction are constantly in development and it remains to be seen whether CBD will end up being the most clinically significant compound extracted from these plants, as research into other cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids is ongoing. For now though, CBD’s range of health benefits and ease of consumption have seen it become a staple for many consumers, whether for medical reasons or for wellness.

Verified by a Healthcare Professional

Anastasiia Myronenko

Anastasiia Myronenko

Anastasiia Myronenko is a Medical Physicist actively practicing in one of the leading cancer centers in Kyiv, Ukraine. She received her master’s degree in Medical Physics at Karazin Kharkiv National University and completed Biological Physics internship at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, Germany. Anastasiia Myronenko specializes in radiation therapy and is a fellow of Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists.