Once you start diving into the world of CBD products, you will quickly realize that not all products are created equally. While most use industrial hemp as the source of CBD, extraction techniques and the following purification steps can vary widely, leaving you with different products, like “full-spectrum CBD” and “broad-spectrum CBD” extracts, as well as “CBD isolate”. But what is the difference between them, and why and when does it matter?
The Purification Process of CBD
A raw hemp extract is a relatively unrefined, dark green substance full of chlorophyll (the green color of plants) and secondary plant metabolites with a strong, bitter taste.
A method called distillation, which involves heating the extract under reduced pressure, condensing and collecting the vapors, can be used to remove these unwanted compounds, as they are too heavy to go into the vapor phase. At the same time, the heating converts the acid form of cannabinoids into the so-called decarboxylated form, which is more stable.
The product of this first distillation is often referred to as a “full-spectrum” extract, as it still contains the full spectrum of cannabinoids, including THC, as well as terpenes and some residual fatty acids.
Broad-spectrum CBD extract
To obtain a so-called “broad spectrum” extract without THC, a second distillation can be performed, this time splitting the vapor phase into a THC-rich and a CBD-rich fraction, discarding the first. The CBD-rich distillate will still contain other cannabinoids like CBG and terpenes, but without THC, which makes it legal in many parts of the world.
Some companies also use a process called chromatography instead or after the second distillation, where the compound mixture gets dissolved and passed over a stationary phase, which separates certain compounds from one another. However, this process requires special equipment and more materials, which is why it is less commonly applied.
In order to remove plant waxes, if these haven’t been removed during the distillation process already, a process called “winterization” can be performed. Here, the extract is dissolved in alcohol and cooled down to a very low temperature, which causes heavy oils and waxes to solidify at the top of the liquid. They can then be filtered off to obtain a wax-free extract after the removal of the alcohol.
Pure CBD isolate can be derived from the broad spectrum extract through a process called crystallization. Here, the extract is dissolved in a hydrocarbon solvent like hexane. As the hexane slowly evaporates, the CBD starts to crystallize, while other cannabinoids stay in solution. The crystals can be filtered off and dried to obtain pure CBD.
Why it matters
You might now wonder why all these different extracts exist and are used in products. Why can’t we just make everything with full-spectrum extracts and save ourselves tedious purification steps?
The first answer is simple: because full-spectrum extracts contain residual, detectable amounts of THC. Any product that is made with such an extract couldn’t be used, for example, by competing athletes that have to undergo regular drug tests. Their sale also wouldn’t be legal in a lot of countries with stricter regulations on THC levels in consumer goods.
Broad-spectrum products are clearly the better choice if you want to benefit from the presence of other cannabinoids and terpenes – but without THC. This is why they are commonly used in CBD oil products.
For some applications, however, you want CBD in its purest form possible. One of these is vaping. The residual fatty acids in full/broad-spectrum extracts could lead to burnt coils and clogged devices when used in standard vaping devices. Genuine CBD isolate guarantees a clean, safe product that can be used in any vape setup—with zero worries.
Keep in mind
Depending on the product type and intended usage, different types of extracts are more or less beneficial. It makes sense to always check the ingredient list and if needed ask the manufacturer which raw material has been used. Additionally, always check the COAs of your products to make sure you’re buying a genuine product free of THC and safe for its respective use.
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