There’s no shortage of CBD companies in the wellness world, which leaves you, the consumer, with the difficult task of reading labels and Googling acronyms and doing endless research to find the high-quality products you feel comfortable and confident taking. To make the process a bit easier, we’re outlining everything you need to know about a Certificate of Analysis, including what it is, why it’s important, how to read it, and red flags to look out for.
What is a Certificate of Analysis (COA)
A Certificate of Analysis is a document from an accredited third-party or internal cGMP-certified laboratory verifying the cannabinoid quantity in each specific product batch.
Why is it so important to have a COA?
CBD products need to have a COA to ensure labeling accuracy with regards to THC and CBD content.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC for short) is the substance responsible for the mental effects of marijuana. A COA is necessary to confirm that the amount of THC in the product doesn’t exceed the legal limit of 0.3% and that, if a product is labeled “THC-free,” it actually is.
CBD varies greatly by harvest, genetics of the plant, etc. With a clear COA that includes batch number, sampling date, and location, consumers can trace the product back to the source.
Full transparency is what you want here, especially when you consider the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t officially verify or regulate the supplement industry. In fact, in a 2017 study published in JAMA in which 84 CBD products from 31 companies were purchased and analyzed, 42.85% were found to be underlabeled and 26.19% overlabeled. (1)
In the study, researchers note that the overlabeling of CBD products is comparable to levels that triggered warning letters from the FDA to 14 businesses back in 2015 (in which the actual, tested CBD content was either less than 1% of the labeled content or entirely negligible).
“There is a need for federal and state regulatory agencies to take steps to ensure label accuracy of these consumer products,” argue researchers. “These findings highlight the need for manufacturing and testing standards.”(1)
Where do I find the Certificate of Analysis?
Depending on the product, you may be able to access the COA via a QR code on the product. Others (like Proper!) have it as a downloadable PDF on the website.
What should be in a Certificate of Analysis?
There are a few specific things to look for when evaluating a COA:
- Report date (to ensure it’s relatively current: 6 months to 1 year is standard)
- Name + contact information of third-party lab that conducted the analysis
- Specific batch number (i.e. lot number) + description
- Cannabinoid profile (CBD + phytocannabinoid content)
- THC content
- Pesticide verification (to ensure there are no pesticides, contaminants, or heavy metals in the extract, which is important since CBD is derived from a plant)
- Moisture content (generally speaking, moisture is bad for CBD oil-based plant extracts)
- Residual solvent analysis (to report solvents present as a result of manufacturing/processing)
How to read a Cannabinoid Potency Analysis?
Using this example as a reference, let’s first talk acronyms:
- LOQ: limit of quantitation...in other words, the minimum level, concentration, or quantity that can be reported with a specific degree of confidence
Everything below is a type of cannabinoid, which is a fancy word to describe the naturally-occurring compounds found in cannabis.
- CBD: cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound derived from the hemp plant (cousin of the marijuana plant)
- THC: tetrahydrocannabinol which, as mentioned above, is the active compound in the cannabis plant responsible for its psychoactive effects (this is what gets you “high”)
- THCV: tetrahydrocannabivarin, another cannabinoid that resembles THC in its molecular structure
- CBDA: cannabidiolic acid, which converts to CBD when exposed to heat over a period of time
- CBG: cannabigerol, the first phytocannabinoid synthesized in the hemp plant that then converts into other plant-based cannabinoids
- CBGA: cannabigerolic acid, a minor cannabinoid that’s essentially the acidic form of cannabigerol (CBG)
- CBDVA: cannabidivarinic acid, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid known for its anti-inflammatory properties
- CBDV: cannabidivarin, which is a homolog (i.e. has a similar gene structure) to CBD
- CBN: cannabinol, which is derived from the oxidation and decomposition of THC from the hemp plant
- CBL: cannabicyclol, which is generated through the degradation of the CBC compound
- CBC: cannabichromene which, like THC and CBD, also stems from CBGA
Now that we’ve gotten the acronyms down, let’s move onto the numbers.
See where it says 836.1 mg/g? That means you’re getting 836.1 mg of CBD in each gram of this extract—in addition to the other phytocannabinoids like CBG, CBN, etc. This is proof of the specific content in the extract.
What are potential “red flags” in a COA?
Keep an eye out for the following red flags, which are generally signs not to trust the product in question:
- If the CBD content on the label does not match that of the COA
- If the product label states “broad spectrum” but there’s a lack of other phytocannabinoids on the COA
For context, broad spectrum hemp extract contains almost every compound in the cannabis plant, including cannabinoids, flavonoids, and trace amounts of terpenes. Some of these cannabinoids are traceable and reported in the COA while others are not. This is what differentiates it from CBD isolate, which is composed of 99% pure CBD but stripped of all other ingredients. The one phytocannabinoid not present in broad spectrum is THC, which IS present in full spectrum at a legally allowed dosing of 0.3%.
- If the THC content exceeds 0.3%
It’s also important to note that certain COAs are only for the hemp extract raw material. Test results for the full product are often not listed because doing so would mean revealing proprietary information around the formulation.