Ask Ruby: I don’t understand how to read CBD analysis reports – can you explain how to?

October 18, 2021

Every month our resident CBD and cannabis expert Ruby Deevoy answers your questions in her agony aunt column Ask Ruby. If you have a burning question about CBD or cannabis get in touch:

Dear Ruby

I keep hearing that I should ‘check the lab reports’ before I buy a CBD product, but I’ve no idea how to read them! Could you please tell me how to or what I should look out for?

The advice to check third-party lab reports (also known as certificate of analysis, or COA) is absolutely spot on, as doing so not only allows you to buy a CBD product that you know is ‘clean’ (free from heavy metals and pesticides) but will also show that a product is what the brand claims it to be. 

When you’re shopping for CBD, you may have noticed products are often labelled ‘isolate’ (the CBD molecule on its own, usually suspended in a carrier oil), ‘broad spectrum’ (a range of cannabinoids, but with no THC) or ‘full spectrum’ (a range of cannabinoids, including THC, and hopefully terpenes too!). However, this labelling is not always entirely accurate (or truthful) on closer inspection. Reading a lab report will show you exactly which cannabinoids are present in the oil, so you can choose a product that suits your needs. And it will also show that illegal cannabinoids are not present in the oil above legal limits if this is a concern for you.

What’s more, the array of over 140 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant (from which CBD oil is derived) have a range of therapeutic benefits. So with a little extra research, you can identify which cannabinoids might benefit you most, and buy a product that has higher levels of those in the mix.

Now we’ve covered why you might want to read these reports in the first place, let’s look at how you read them.

How to read a COA

Lab reports do vary in presentation and content. Some simply show that illegal cannabinoids are within legal limits (or not present at all), and that the product is free from contaminants. Others show a full cannabinoid profile, and some even show terpenes – which is always exciting to see, but sadly quite unusual. 

You’ll be presented with a table (or maybe a few tables) listing cannabinoids and contaminants. At the top of the table you’ll see LOQ, which stands for Limit of Quantitation– a term used to describe the smallest concentration of a measure – and underneath, the smallest percentage this will have picked up. In the rest of the table, you are likely to see <LOQ repeated quite a lot – this means the product contains ‘less than’ the indicated lowest percentage, essentially meaning this is not present in the oil.

You’ll also see a % column. For things present in the oil, here you will see the percentage of the cannabinoid (contaminant or terpene) present. And next to that ‘result mg/g’ meaning how much is actually present in 1 milligram per gram. You may also see the result (ppm), which means ‘parts per million’. This can also be read as mg/L and means how much of a chemical is present in a volume of liquid. 

This probably all sounds very complicated, but once it’s laid out in front of you it will make more sense! With this information, you should be able to scan your eyes over the charts and get an idea of how much of each cannabinoid is in the oil you’re interested in.

Unfortunately, we can’t just rely on the labelling of ‘organic’ to confidently buy a product free from contaminants, or labelling of ‘broad’ or ‘full’ spectrum. Being organic doesn’t account for heavy metals, and more often than not, broad-spectrum oils contain so little of other cannabinoids they really shouldn’t be sold as that. And same goes for full spectrum – for a true full-spectrum oil you should expect to see 5 or 6 other cannabinoids listed in decent quantities, alongside CBD which will always have the highest level listed in CBD oil.

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