How to Choose the Right Hemp Extract
Explore what it means to evaluate hemp extracts for overall quality - including three American hemp farms to serve as perfect examples of where the industry’s headed.
Table of Contents
Section 1: Determine Source & Seed Genetics
Section 2: Look for Vertically-Integrated Providers
Section 3: Examine Extraction Method
Section 4: Consider Core Product Attributes
Hemp: Under the 2018 Hemp Farming Act; Farm Bill, hemp is now cannabis with less than 0.3% THC content. The title used to be reserved for cultivars of cannabis grown specifically for fiber and seed, but now includes female cannabis for flower as long as THC content remains low.
Hemp Oil (Seed): The oil derived from hemp seed, as well as the whole seeds (husk & heart) are pretty well-understood the world over to contain a superior nutritional profile, but little to no cannabinoids. One cannot create a cannabinoid-rich extract using conventional hemp seed. Most commonly consumed as whole hemp seed, hemp hearts, hemp seed protein powder, hemp flour and of course the oil.
Hemp Extract (Flower): Resin or oil created by hemp flowers contain the vast majority of plant cannabinoids directly on the bud-trichomes as well as immediately surrounding leaves. Female cannabis trichomes are fairly complex and can potentially contain hundreds of different compounds all working together.
Full/Broad Spectrum Hemp Extract: When applied to a commercial or consumer 'Hemp CBD' product, this is really like saying "We extracted most of the good stuff (especially CBD content), then got rid of some unnecessary stuff." What's usually missing are components like chlorophyll, as well as some of the fatty acids, terpenes and essential oils. Because of legal/financial risks for hemp providers, THC may be partially or completely removed. Can be clear to varying shades of amber or gold in color.
Whole Plant Hemp Extract: This should be applied to hemp flower-based extracts with the absolute minimum level of processing - just taking the raw (winterized) biomass and using one of a variety of cutting agents to separate cannabinoids, terpenes, fatty acids, chlorophyll, etc., from plant material. Not as common because for consumers, it's going to taste horrible and could potentially contain higher levels of THC. These low levels wouldn't make the extract intoxicating, especially in the presence of much higher levels of CBD (dramatically lowers THC binding affinity), but could cause one to fail a urinalysis test.
In the last two days I’ve enjoyed conversations with three different players in the American hemp CBD industry around the quality of full spectrum extracts - an ambitious entrepreneur looking to get involved and become a provider but unsure where to turn for quality domestic product; a small-scale hemp farmer with years of experience creating and formulating extracts for a small customer base; an everyday person looking to make it big as a hemp CBD product affiliate online with a fresh new website.
Neck-deep in the Wild West of American hemp...
No doubt about it, and the system’s scrambling to catch up on regulatory, medical, food system and legislative levels. Hemp-derived CBD on the back of ‘Medical/Recreational Cannabis’ and developing Endocannabinoid System science exploded onto the American scene like nothing seen before outside the actual Gold Rush of the mid-to-late 19th century. Within a matter of just a few years hemp CBD went from a fringe whisper to a raging billion dollar crop bringing about an end to the federal industrial hemp farming ban.
For simplification, I’ve narrowed down four steps relatively new hemp cannabis consumers should consider when approaching the prospect of buying extracts online (or in the near future, in nearby retail settings).
Section 1: Determine Source & Seed Genetics
As you’re readying to devour this article it’s safe to assume you aren’t a flourishing cannabis farmer, at least not yet. Brisk mountains of interest are spreading in that department though, wow, and thank goodness. Farming hemp specifically for CBD in America today is a high-risk, high-reward venture with the odds of finding buyers in terms of either direct consumers, extractors or private companies, not to mention major corporations or research organizations, looking extremely good for years to come.
If you were farming cannabis you wouldn’t need this info because you’d already be conjuring home extracts and experimenting with the plant’s genetics to get different yields of whatever you’re targeting - flower, seed, hurd, fiber, etc. Instead, you’re interested in hemp-based extracts as a consumer, conducting research to see what makes one tincture proverbial ‘snake oil’ or low quality, while another tincture may mg-for-mg be hovering close to the value of gold!
As with all plant extracts or essential oils it starts with seed genetics, or often in the case of cannabis your mother plant, then on into farming and processing practices.
Couple Quick Points on Cannabis Farming
Cannabis is dioecious so it can be male (classic ‘hemp’ - produces high amounts of pollen, good fiber, and seeds), female (classic psychoactive cannabis - focus on buds, flowers and trim), or hermaphroditic (seeded flowers; lowered cannabinoid content in flowers - less extractable biomass) with male and female traits.
We can extract cannabinoids from all three with varying degrees of efficacy whether it’s being called ‘Marijuana’ or ‘Hemp’ cannabis.
When extracts are the goal, to reduce risk and maintain more control over genetics most farmers are going to stick with mother plants, or clones, because growing from seed introduces risk and uncertainty. Thus the rise of companies/initiatives offering superior hemp genetics grown indoors, with new farmers as their aim. Cannabis genetics are complex and can be unpredictable when growing from seed on larger-plot levels.
The most efficient source for extracts for farmers and producers are females because they pump plant-power into producing cannabinoid and terpene-rich flowers; thus often somewhat shorter and bushier than classic tall and thin fiber-hemp.
Males on the other hand tend to pump the brunt of their resources into producing seed and pollen, which they produce a LOT of. New hemp farmers are often surprised by how much.
We can use all classic cannabis plants for fiber, but ‘hemp’ has always been dominated by males because it’s an ideal multi-purpose crop (seed + fiber + hurd + lower potency extracts) with a textile-friendly fiber. Female fiber is more appropriate for course ropes or canvas.
The cultivars of cannabis being called hemp in America - now defined as cannabis with less than 0.3% THC content under the 2018 Farm Bill - and used to create extracts are unique; relative newcomers on the scene of the 10,000+ year-old relationship between humans and cannabis cultivation.
New strains are being created as I type these words.
Most people would visually perceive them as primarily monoecious hybrid-females bred for legally low levels of THC and much higher levels of CBD (as well as other strains coming down the pike focusing on CBG, CBC, CBN and acidic forms of cannabinoids like CBDV, CBGV, CBCV, in non-winterized raw plant biomass, etc.) but, stress can induce these plants to produce more THC than intended which puts inexperienced American farmers and their entire crops at risk - weather and environmental factors, drought or irregular water management, over-fertilization, crude farming equipment, use of inorganic products, and more. These are also conditions which can induce cannabis plants to turn hermaphrodite as an ancient survival mechanism.
Key Takeaway: There’s limited supply of expertly grown domestic U.S. hemp for CBD in America right now in early 2019 compared to demand. While the landscape is changing fast, it means a good percentage of the products claiming to be American aren’t. We don’t have the supply yet - consumers beware! The hemp is farmed (and often extracted) internationally then imported where it's either put into products or further processed into full spectrum variants or isolates. However, the most highly-regulated hemp industries are in European countries like Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, etc. as well as Canada, so keep that in mind. There is a general expectation of 50,000 hectares (about 123,000 acres) of hemp will be seen in the U.S. over 2020-2030, although this is a pretty conservative estimate.
Speaking of which, that leads us to our next mini-point in this grand journey regarding how one weighs variables to choose the right hemp extract.
Domestic U.S. vs. International Hemp Extracts
Okay, so we’ve established outside a handful of states like Oregon, Colorado, and Kentucky, there really is no wide-scale domestic hemp farming industry in America yet for any purpose, let alone CBD production. We’ll experience a slight lag between 2019-2021/22 until states adjust to new 2018 Farm Bill hemp legislation (must draft hemp farming plans on the state level, submit to USDA, etc.) and farmers learn the crop, but soon the nation will sport a sweeping assortment of small hobby hemp cannabis growers, private business farms like those we’ll look into in a sec, and large corporate farms dramatically increasing acreage nationwide.
The only real issue here as an American consumer is your ability to verify where the hemp for any extract was grown, how it was farmed and processed, and whether lab tests were verified once in the states if imported. How easy is it for a company to say, “Our extract comes from organically grown family farm hemp!”? Whether this is true or not is harder to ascertain if not farmed domestically. Even then, let's consider these types of products are likely to be in Walgreens, Walmart, et al. soon.
Reasons It’s an Issue
Costs vs. Quality - the higher the quality a cannabis extract is said to be, the more expensive. Consumers need to be able to know what they’re paying for.
Quality impacts from international transportation and storage; not to mention multiple layers of tampering with the organic plant material must be weighed.
Sustainable supply chain issues, verifiable organic farming practices, cleanliness, etc.
All this being said, let me stress this point... most genuine European hemp is amazing! As mentioned in the intro, I happened to chat recently with one of the owners of an Oregon hemp farm we’ll look at shortly, and she had such delightful things to say about well-established European hemp. There’s plenty of organic hemp farming throughout many countries on Earth, far more advanced than the U.S. hemp industry of early 2019-2020. Endoca is a company that uses European hemp I think is completely top notch! Even China is up and coming where they’ve farmed hemp for thousands of years for textiles, but again, it’s just a matter of being able to verify supply chain issues and quality control.
Let’s get right into that very thing.
Section 2: Look for Vertically-Integrated Providers
Over the next decade the number of hemp companies in America managing their own hemp farms, processing methods and extractors will hit fever pitch. Some are describing it as a new gold or green rush. Such a great development for everyone and the environment! What consumers need to be looking for to get the highest quality hemp extracts in my opinion are vertically-integrated providers with a managed and state-regulated farm in their state, or the closest state possible.
Earlier I mentioned Colorado, Oregon and Kentucky, so let’s go through an example from each so you can see exactly what I mean.
Example #1: Veritas Farms - Pueblo, Colorado
Now here’s your iconic Colorado hemp company who’s been in the game, growing and perfecting their sustainable extract supply chain for years - tincture (unflavored and flavored varieties from 250mg up to 2,000mg), salve, capsules, lotion, massage oil, lip balm, gummies (use an isolate CBD; can add melatonin) and even a pet tincture (bacon or tuna flavor; 100mg or 200mg).
“We operate under complete transparency and offer tours of both our farm and lab. We also provide our customers with a Certificate of Analysis and a copy of the most recent tests with every product.”
Important point because shady practices are definitely going on where extracts claim to be from Colorado-grown hemp, when in reality they aren’t. Simply put - there’s a big discrepancy between the amount of hemp extracts claiming to be from CO and the amount of hemp acreage in CO! With Veritas (latin for Truth) Farms you can verify everything personally if you have the means or live within reach.
Grows both indoors for climate-control, and outdoors; barn dried.
Employs drip irrigation, cultivates from mother plants for genetic stability; uses a highly-managed farming and initial processing method for quality control.
Monitor their own crop through high-performance liquid chromatography for both quality and to ensure Colorado state compliance.
Back in 2014 I visited a similar Colorado company near Colorado Springs and it’s a great part of the country... picturesque in all directions. With Veritas Farms you get complete transparency because they manage their entire supply chain - farming, initial post-harvest processing, extraction, testing (along with 3rd Party), and product packaging.
Example #2: Whole Circle Farms - Silverton, Oregon
After having a little trouble finding specific information on their website regarding extraction (we’ll address this in the next section), I decided to pick up my phone and give the farm a call. What a wonderful decision, as I got to chat with one of the owners, a delightful woman named Sarah. She and her husband moved back to Oregon in 2014 after being California farmers for over 20 years, then started their first hemp crop in 2016.
Earned an organic farming certification through Certified Kind in the Summer of 2018.
A small family-run farm of 5,000 plants in early 2019, so not a large corporate operation.
Genuine passionate focus on sustainable farming practices; clean full spectrum extracts.
Their whole family is involved, not just in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, but around the world as they travel and discover more about what hemp is for the 21st century. Real honest to goodness hempsters. A perfect example of the kind of business I’d turn to if I was looking for a high-quality hemp extract. They have an online store, but with 5,000 plants they’ll likely need to grow soon, or perhaps not. After speaking with Sarah it sounds like the children might take over the farm in coming years which is truly music to my ears.
Hemp is the most positive development in America in my lifetime so far.
Example #3: Laura’s Mercantile - Winchester, Kentucky
Farm Website: https://www.mtfollyfarm.com
Laura’s Mercantile is easily one of the most prominent Kentucky hemp farming operations I’ve come across. The amazing platform she’s built with her team out east over just the last 5 growing seasons is inspiring. From chocolate truffles and wafers to topical creams and conventional full spectrum tinctures, they’ve got a neat selection of hemp CBD products along with nutritious hemp seeds, hemp protein, hemp seed oil, etc.
Fully certified and licensed through the state’s department of agriculture (and Hemp Research Pilot Program prior to the 2018 Farm Bill changes) which means sustained records of field testing by outside inspectors.
Received preliminary approval from the state for the new hemp program starting 2019.
Hemp crops used through their farm at Mt. Folly are USDA Certified Organic - no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides - which is a 3-year process.
All flower material as well as each batch of hemp extract released for sale are 3rd party tested - and they’re working on getting their extractor organically certified.
Many of the products are hand-crafted, or personally formulated by herbalist artisans like their CBD lotion.
What I appreciate most is how transparent the team is with their hemp growing seasons. For example, after the wettest year in central Kentucky since record-keeping began in 1872, their other crops suffered in 2018! If it weren’t for their resilient organic hemp crop and the support of their hemp CBD customers, it would’ve been a disaster. That’s real.
Section 3: Examine Extraction Method
There is no universally perfect way to produce cannabis extract. Instead there’s a small variety of methods (solvents) which each have ups & downs relative to a number of variables like volume, equipment quality or complexity, the desired end product (full spectrum of differing potencies and makeups or isolates), and the quality of the source plant material.
Without going into a super-science and plant chemistry lesson, let’s briefly look at these farms through the prism of their chosen extraction method.
Veritas Farms - Ethanol
For their currently 140-acre hemp farm they choose to use ‘gentle and natural’ as they put it, food-grade cold ethanol (grain alcohol) extraction to pull a wide range of plant compounds from the cellulose then further refine extracts as needed via chromatography.
“Throughout the entire process we monitor our phytocannabinoid levels with a HPLC analyzer for quality and assuring we’re fully compliant with the “industrial hemp” limits set by Colorado Department of Agriculture...our lab is overseen by expert pharmacists who formulate our products which we manufacture and bottle ourselves on our farm.”
Generally speaking cold ethanol can be as safe as CO2 extraction using carbon dioxide, and as efficient as butane. The method has gained lots of steam lately because of the demand for extracts more on the 'whole plant' side with included esters, chlorophyll, ketones, terpenes, cannabinoids, waxes, etc. This is all verified through lab tests which they provide for each purchase from both their own in-house lab as well as 3rd party through the state.
Laura’s Mercantile - CO2
Another impressive part of the Laura’s Mercantile platform is how transparent they are with certification, licensing, lab testing and extraction. To see everything simply head to their ‘Our Hemp Certifications’ page. CO2 is very common, safe, sustainable, and effective in terms of creating a clean hemp extract minus some of the compounds like fatty lipids and waxes.
Whole Circle Farms - CO2 & Ethanol
For their vape cartridges, 20mg CBD mints and tincture they use CO2 extraction working with local extractors in their area - Salem, Oregon. For their capsules and salves they use alcohol extraction to keep more of the plant’s compounds in the extract. Sarah was very forthcoming about their experience working with hemp extract and formulating edibles without inorganic additives or sugars...it wasn’t easy. There’s just so much consumers don’t understand when it comes to plant compounds and chemistry, and mixing these compounds with things like High-Fructose Corn syrup, other herbs and spices, and so forth.
A couple safe bets are going to be clean oils like hemp seed oil, olive and coconut oils, chocolates (especially dark with synergistic compounds to cannabinoids), butters (cannabinoids are fat-soluble) and mints work well for taste. Thankfully they’re quite upfront with lab tests which you can see for yourself on their individual product pages.
Step 4: Consider Core Product Attributes
Product Presentation: Whether the packaging is amateurish or super-fancy has little to no impact on what’s inside. Don’t be swayed or fooled by presentation alone, but, does it clearly list ingredients, serving size, amount of cannabinoids per serving, general instructions, etc.? I myself gravitate towards companies that do a good job of including this kind of helpful information on their products.
Ingredient Transparency: Price should largely be for the market value of cannabinoids, especially CBD. It’s hard to value small amounts of terpenes and other compounds, but surely you shouldn’t be paying a lot of money for common extra ingredients - especially if the goal is to cover the taste of raw hemp paste or a more crude oil (deal with it!). While a personal choice, I myself prefer extremely streamlined and simple ingredient profiles in full-to-whole hemp extracts.
Flavored or Unflavored: A personal choice, just watch for too many additives or unnatural flavorings for obvious reasons. If taste is that big of an issue, just take a little honey with your pure extract! If that doesn't work, simple organic flavorings are ideal.
Cost per MG vs. Quality: Here’s the real nuts and bolts. After coming to terms with quality via farming, processing and extraction methods, determine how much you’re paying per milligram (1000 = 1 gram) so you can shop around.
Social Proofing: Whenever possible, look for genuine reviews and testimonials from fellow human beings. Keep in mind not many farmers or CBD companies dump tons of money into social media marketing, or digital marketing in general, so a lack here doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative.
Lab Tests: In most cases, ‘full spectrum’ means full spectrum, so you shouldn’t see isolate CBD. No cannabis plant ONLY produce CBD and no other cannabinoids that we know of. There should be trace amounts of a few other cannabinoids like perhaps CBC, CBN, or CBG, as well as within the legal limits of THC (like with Laura’s Mercantile line of Homestead CBD products). This is because of the ‘Entourage Effect’ cannabinoids have on each other in the plant, as well as human and animal bodies. Also, there should be various terpenes present, but not tons, and not in really high quantities. If this is the case, they’re most likely being added to an isolate or highly-streamlined extract to make them seem more full spectrum or pleasant to the taste and smell.
So, are you a hardcore purest looking for the most whole plant extract possible, or, does a common full spectrum or isolate work? Hopefully this article helps a few people out there make more informed decisions, and as the years pass, more business goes to smaller and vertically-integrated American hemp companies.
Thanks so much for your time.