What is a COA and how is it done?

The cannabis industry is booming, and one of the plant’s primary cannabinoids – cannabidiol (CBD) – is becoming the subject of increasing focus by both medical professionals and recreational users. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t yet been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that, currently, the industry is loosely regulated.

There are no universal standards for companies or individuals to adhere to – meaning that almost anyone can label and sell a product as “CBD oil.” Research conducted in 2017 showed that 70% of CBD products that were tested were mislabeled. This isn’t just dishonest – it can also be dangerous if there are high levels of pesticides, toxins, and heavy metals present. Therefore, it’s crucial to make sure you know exactly what you’re putting into your body.

So, as more and more CBD companies, brands, and products are coming onto the market, and the industry as a whole is set to be worth a whopping $16 billion by 2025, according to Forbes, what can enable you to distinguish a high-quality product from a low-quality one? The answer is a certificate of analysis (COA), which is the result of third-party lab testing.

Why Is it Important to Test CBD Extracts?

The purpose of third-party lab testing is to provide an unbiased analysis of CBD products. A manufacturer sends samples of its products to a lab, which runs independent tests and provides the results. The labs are in no way affiliated with the brands or products they’re testing, so they have no reason to be anything but transparent and honest. They’re also highly regarded scientific organizations with exceptional and consistent reputations to uphold.

The tests are used to indicate the purity, potency, and overall quality of a CBD sample. Getting them done is, therefore, a good indicator of the integrity of a company. After all, if it’s getting its products tested in such a way, it’s unlikely it has anything to hide. On the other hand, if it’s unwilling to do so, it suggests there’s something it doesn’t want its customers to see.

What Exactly Is Tested?

There are many different things that a third-party lab will test for. These include the following:

  • Cannabinoid and terpene profiles: obviously, the first thing to check for is the primary ingredient, CBD. The exact level can be ascertained, which means the company or retailer can display accurate information on the packaging. However, CBD is just one of hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant. Therefore, if the extract is full-spectrum CBD, it’s important to find out the levels of each of the main cannabinoids. In addition to CBD, these include THC, CBN, CBG, and CBC. The level of THC is of particular importance, as it must be less than 0.3% in order for the end product to be legal under federal law.
  • Heavy metals: hemp is known to be a bioaccumulator, which means it absorbs everything from the soil in which it is grown. This can include beneficial substances such as minerals, but also heavy metals, which can cause inflammation and damage to cell structures in the body. Most labs will look for the presence of lead, mercury, and arsenic, among others.
  • Pesticides and other chemicals: soil contamination is an increasing occurrence in the modern world, so this is a crucial part of the testing process. Bioaccumulation means that if there are any pesticides or chemicals present in the soil in which the hemp is grown, they will also be in the end product.
  • Solvents: as an increasing number of CBD manufacturers use supercritical CO2 extraction to produce their products, testing for solvents such as propane, ethanol, and butane is becoming less necessary. However, labs will usually still test for their presence anyway.
  • Biological contaminants: naturally occurring bacteria, mold, parasites, and fungi will contaminate the hemp plant if they are present in the soil. As they can trigger allergies in humans when consumed, it’s extremely important that they’re not present in the end product.

How Is the Product Tested?

Third-party lab testing can be done in several ways, and there are no official regulations. However, the industry standard is high-performance liquid chromatography (HLPC) due to its accuracy and cost-effectiveness. A small sample of the product is dissolved in a solvent (typically, ethanol) and put into a long, thin tube under high pressure. This causes all the individual compounds to separate. Light molecules float, while heavy molecules sink.

There is a UV light detector at the end of the tube, as well as a small hole for the compounds to exit. The compounds’ different densities will cause them to leave the tube separately, and the density of the compounds is measured as they leave according to their ability to absorb UV light. By measuring the density of each compound with their known densities, accurate concentrations of each can be identified.

The Certificate Itself

After the product is tested, the lab presents the results to the company on a COA. If they’re good and the company has nothing to hide from its customers, the COA for each product should be easily accessible online for all existing and potential customers to view.

It will confirm that the company is using a good hemp source with farmers that use high-quality cultivation processes, and reputable manufacturers that use the optimal extraction methods to produce an optimal product. It will also provide reassurance that you’re not consuming anything that may be harmful to your body. In short, make sure that you view an up-to-date COA for every CBD product that you buy. If there isn’t one available, move on.

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