What is synthetic CBD? And how might it affect the market for natural, plant-derived CBD?
In a short amount of time, cannabidiol (CBD) has gone from a relatively unknown hemp compound to a mainstream consumer ingredient. It would appear that CBD sales are outpacing the establishment of regulations, testing, and safety data. To make matters more complicated, a market for synthetic CBD could be on the horizon.
What is synthetic CBD? And how might it influence the market for natural, plant-derived CBD?
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What Is It?
Synthetic CBD and other synthetic cannabinoids are man-made alternatives to naturally occurring hemp-derived cannabinoids. Scientists have successfully produced synthetic CBD from non-hemp starting materials, such as brewer’s yeast,1 and the resulting CBD may be easier and cheaper to produce, as well as more consistent in chemical composition, than when it’s extracted from the harvested biomass of a fully-grown hemp plant.
Synthetic CBD is also patentable. And since the legal framework around CBD is still questionable, it’s possible that synthetic CBD gets an easier path to legal commerce for now. For perspective, at least two drugs based on a synthetic version of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are already FDA-approved, and GW Pharmaceuticals, owner of the first FDA-approved CBD drug, admits it would be open to creating a synthetic version of its plant-based ingredient if it makes business sense.2
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If synthetic CBD does move quickly to market, there’s wonder as to whether it will stay in the pharmaceutical sector or one day penetrate the dietary supplement sector as a legal, competing ingredient-or as a cost-effective adulterant. Would analytical laboratories be able to adequately test for synthetic versus natural CBD?
Elan Sudberg, CEO of Alkemist Labs (Garden Grove, CA), says that scientific methods can differentiate CBD made in a synthetic organic chemistry lab from that produced in nature. But synthetic biological production, such as in the case of brewer’s yeast, may not be yet discernable. “If the CBD was made by a synbio process with a GMO yeast or bacteria, which are currently isolated possibilities in the market, there is no test I know of to differentiate from CBD made by cannabis plants,” he says.
Alkemist Labs provides cannabinoid testing services under its International Cannabis Analysis Program (ICAP). Though the main purpose of ICAP is to test for illegal levels of THC in products, Sudberg isn’t counting out the possibility of adding other cannabinoid analysis services in the future.
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Sticking to Natural
Vested members of the hemp industry are still confident that there will continue to be ample demand for natural CBD products should synthetic options become commonplace. While synthetic CBD ingredients may one day have a solid place in pharma, such single-compound medicines would lack the wide range of cannabinoids and other compounds found in full-spectrum hemp oil. Researchers have dubbed the potential full-spectrum benefit the “entourage effect.”
Safeguarding the natural CBD market and its potential unique selling points will come down to creating specifications as required under current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs). Companies looking to build long-term success in this emerging industry can gain consumer trust by adhering to these methods of transparency and traceability. Since hemp ingredients in some ways differ from other dietary ingredients, organizations like the U.S. Hemp Authority (Lexington, KY) have created their own hemp guidance and certification programs to further strengthen consumer trust in these products.
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Is synthetic CBD as safe as natural CBD? By creating synthetic compounds using inexpensive, non-cannabis precursors, some researchers feel they have created a suitable stand-in for naturally extracted CBD. The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) says there is no scientifically valid reason to believe the safety profiles of the exact same substance, whether produced in a lab or in a plant, would be any different.
On the other hand, we can look to the approved cannabinoid pharmaceuticals and see there is some reason for caution with natural and synthetic cannabinoids. Greenwich Biosciences, a subsidiary of the aforementioned GW Pharmaceuticals, identified a potential risk of liver injury from consuming the maximum recommended human dosage of its natural CBD pharmaceutical, Epidiolex, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously written about the potential negative health effects of consuming other synthetic cannabinoids.1 “We are still in need of more clinical research and safety trials to understand the safety issues surrounding both naturally occurring cannabinoids and those that are synthetically created in a laboratory environment,” says Marielle Weintraub, U.S. Hemp Authority president.
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