How To Read A Certificate of Analysis (COA) for CBD products
(3-5 min read)
By Michael Silvia CEO of HerbSwift, Inc.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of CBD by now. You might even know that its an abbreviation for Cannabidiol. A naturally occurring, highly beneficial component of Hemp (Cannabis Sativa L. <0.3% THC). Additionally, you may have even heard some mumblings of the Federal Government making hemp (and its derivates and extracts) legal again with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. If you’re really savvy on the subject, you probably know that a product with a “3rd party COA” is usually a much better sign than not.
But what the heck is a COA and how in world do you decipher one?
First, the source of the COA is important. Try identify whether or not the COA is from the manufacturer’s own quality assurance lab or whether it is from an accredited 3rd party facility. In the case of the former, and due to the immaturity of the industry in general, a consumer cannot blindly trust an internal COA isn’t photoshopped or otherwise doctored. Odds are it’s accurate, but with a 3rd party you can call in and verify the results firsthand with an independent and unbiased expert.
Cannabinoid Profile or “Potency”
This is the most common type of testing included in a COA and usually shows about a dozen of the most prolific primary cannabinoids in addition to Cannabidiol (CBD). These include d9 THC, d8 THC, THCv, THCa, CBDa, CBDv, CBN, CBNa, CBC, etc.. Generally consumers should be concerned with both the CBD and d9 THC results. In order to be compliant with most state and federal laws the d9 THC level must be 0.3% or less. THCv, d8 THC and THCa do not contribute to this percentage total as they are not active forms of THC and do not cause any euphoria or “high.” With CBD we usually just want to see that the results meet or exceed the label claims. Pro Tip: To convert from mg/ml to % simply move the decimal point one place to the left. Example, 100mg/ml = 10%
This test is particularly important in certain products where water is a primary ingredient or where formulations are used that target customers with allergies to preservatives. In any case consumers will want to see ND or None Detected. Pro Tip: Most COAs for oiled based products (which is the vast majority of products containing Hemp CBD) typically don’t include microbiological screening as the carrier oils used such as MCT or Hemp Seed Oil are naturally antimicrobial.
Residual Solvent Analysis
This test is arguably the most controversial of all the types of screenings that can be included in a COA. This is because there are many methods of extracting phytocannabinoid-rich oils from biomass (harvested plant material) and not all of these methods produce the same quality of CBD Hemp Oil. Almost always Solvents are used to optimize the efficiency with which phytocannabinoids can be extracted from biomass, though there is a growing number of suppliers transitioning to “Solventless” Extraction methods in an attempt to improve quality or quantity. In any event, typically trace or “residual” amounts of solvent will be left in the product and acts as a fingerprint of the methods utilized. Consumers will want to see all solvents screened and a “Pass” result for them all as some solvents above certain trace amounts can be unsafe. Pro Tip: Google the name of any solvents that are present in trace amounts on your COA. Find the <USP> classification of the solvent. Class III solvents are much safer for human consumption than Class II or Class I solvents.
“Terpenes” or Terpenoids are classified as Tertiary Cannabinoids and are much more common throughout the plant kingdom than Primary Cannabinoids like CBD or d9-THC. They offer significant therapeutic benefits in-and-of-themselves. They also account for the hundreds and hundreds of unique flavor and odor profiles found throughout the various strains of Cannabis Sativa L. (and Cannabis Indica). The presence of Terpenes in a screening is almost always regarded as a good thing. However, if no terpenes are present or terpene analysis was simply not conducted that should not be considered a red flag by any means. Pro Tip: a-limonene is the terpene that makes citrus smell like citrus and a-pinene is the terpene that makes pine needles smell like pine!
Heavy Metals Analysis
Since all species of cannabis, including hemp, are naturally such an effective bioremediators (removes pollutants from the earth) it is important that farmers test their crop (biomass) after harvest for Heavy Metals to ensure the material does not contain any trace amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, etc… These heavy metals can accumulate in the body and cause serious illnesses. Consumers will want to see a Pass result for these heavy metals on any COA that might include this type of analysis. Pro Tip: Many consumer product COAs do not include Heavy Metals analysis because that phase of quality assurance has typically occurred much earlier in the manufacturing process when the manufacturer was sourcing their CBD oil. If it was clean of heavy metals then, than there is no way there are any heavy metals in it after production.
Each type of analysis has a cost associated with it that most Hemp CBD manufacturers voluntarily pay for (though some state regulations are beginning to come into play despite this fact) in order to meet the demand and expectations of the marketplace. If these manufacturers tested every single batch, for every possible screening, YOU would have to pay a lot more for your products as the cost of all this testing would surely get passed on to you. Soon enough the most credible brands will feature a Seal from the US Hemp Authority certification program certifying that their products have met rigorous quality and testing standards.
Do’s and Don’ts: Do demand COAs, especially from accredited 3rd parties whenever possible. Don’t worry too much if some of this analysis covered here is not on every COA you see.
*Included is an image of a 3rd Party Certificate of Analysis with notes to elaborate even further on how to read a COA.