Consumers often choose hemp as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals. However, they may not realize that many hemp products are pharmaceutical-ish in nature but don’t follow the science. The market is dominated by mass producers who use environmentally destructive factory farming practices, industrial extraction methods, and heavy production—then market the final product as natural.
Leading hemp researchers and practitioners who oppose this over-processed approach support “The Entourage Effect,” a notion that synergy occurs between the natural interaction of the over 400 identified compounds found in hemp, thereby making the whole plant more effective than any one component. The three facets of quality hemp are: richness of phytonutrients, lack of contamination and processing, and sustainable or regenerative growth, which helps leave a positive environmental impact on our planet.
As a supply chain expert, Perry Galanopoulos of FuFluns Foods researched how hemp products are produced, from seed to shelf, and how different modes impact both the final product and our environment: the focus should be on the plant and planet first.
Broadly, there are two approaches to farming hemp: agricultural (field cultivation) and horticultural (garden cultivation). Agriculture focuses on creating one habitat, lowering costs, increasing yield, and competing on price. Alternatively, horticulturists use strategies to promote ecological succession and diversity of landscapes, focusing on quality and preserving the environment.
Agricultural hemp operations produce commodities, and it’s all about size and scale. Farmers look for seed genetics that are easy to grow, pest resistant, cheap, and drought resistant, which makes GMOs appealing. Plant quality, potential contamination, and location are not priorities, since hemp can grow almost anywhere and will go through multiple processing steps. Growing indoors has its advantages, but it also requires so much energy that it leaves a hefty carbon footprint.
Horticultural farming is part science and part art, and it all begins with seeds. Early flower initiation, high resin content, and complex flavor (robust terpene and cannabinoids) are all plant genetics that produce a quality plant, and in hemp’s case, The Entourage Effect. Optimal growing conditions and distance from heavy industry and contaminants are key. Outdoor hemp plants are part of the local ecosystem and grow naturally.
While organic is a good place to start, sustainable and regenerative methods are key to saving our planet. The best hemp is hand planted, weeded, and harvested—without plastic or pesticides—leaving the earth’s soil richer for the next season.
The choice of extraction material and method usually follows the farming practice.
Large-scale agricultural producers focused on cost will harvest using machinery that cuts the plants at the ground level and grinds everything up into “aerial parts.” CO2 is then passed through the aerial parts under pressure and temperature to extract the terpenes and cannabinoids. CO2 is great for selectively extracting parts of the plant; it is cheap to run and easy to scale, ideal for mass production.
Horticultural growers are more focused on plant quality and want to preserve that quality through to the final product. Hemp flower, or bud, grows sticky, glandular hairs called trichomes, and this is where most of the precious cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are located, not in the aerial parts. To preserve the quality, the delicate flower should be hand harvested. Preferred over harmful solvents is organic alcohol, a natural and highly effective solvent, produced by the plants and for the plants.
Once the hemp has been extracted, it is ready to use, either in a concentrated state or, more commonly, diluted with a carrier oil. Depending on the quality, condition, and intended use, it may be taken through multiple post-processing steps to break down the plant’s components and remove contamination.
Those steps include:
Winterization: refines the hemp extract by mixing it with ethanol and taking it down to a sub-zero temperature in order to remove the waxes and lipids. Chlorophyll and some terpenes are often lost, as well.
Distillation: separates compounds based on boiling and condensation temperatures, removing impurities while concentrating desirable compounds.
Chromatography: further separates and purifies chemical compounds, such as cannabinoids like CBD and THC, into single molecules. Some even go one step beyond this and enhance the molecules with nanotechnology.
Isolates usually appear clear and only contain CBD. Taking a CBD isolate is akin to taking Vitamin C instead of eating an orange. The Entourage Effect is lost because all of the other beneficial compounds of the plant have been removed by a laboratory technique called chromatography. The growing process is irrelevant, so it is often farmed as inexpensively as possible.
Broad-spectrum products are often marketed as full spectrum without the THC. This is true, but what they really are is a combination of cannabinoid and terpene isolates. Cannabinoids do not have a lethal dose, but terpenes do, and they come with a pretty scary safety data sheet. When terpenes and/or cannabinoids are listed on the ingredients label, it means the manufacturer “enhanced” the product with an isolate. These products are potentially dangerous and should be left to regulated companies with very strict quality assurance programs.
Factory full spectrum appears off-yellow and may have a faint cannabis smell. Anything that has not gone through the isolation process can be called full spectrum, even industrially farmed, extracted, and processed hemp. Cannabinoids and terpenes are limited. If available, you need to check test results, as some products are “fuller” than others. Often much of the plant’s compounds have been lost.
Unprocessed artisanal hemp extract products are from smaller farms sourced from high quality flower, or “A” buds. They contain a robust profile of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other phytonutrients. Plants that are naturally free of contaminants do not need processing. Fufluns’s products fall into this category. They proudly follow leading practitioners and pioneers, working with passionate farmers and artisanal extractors, not big businesses. The Chicago company continues to prove the quality of their products, having recently opened five new retail stores in California, where cannabis markets are highly competitive.
Testing is paramount to quality and safety, and it should be performed multiple times throughout the supply chain. Cannabinoids and terpenes represent quality, while pesticides, metals, solvents, and the like are contaminants. Typical testing points include flower, crude, mother oil, and finished products, performed at the crude/concentrated level. However, very few farms’ hemp can pass at this level, which is why there is so much processing.
Ensuring quality, safety, and transparency in the hemp industry is, for the most part, as simple as defining product classes and requiring all manufacturers to provide complete test results for their class at certain points within the supply chain and within set guidelines.
Hemp has been consumed for over 5,000 years, and it has the potential to help heal both humanity and our planet. However, strong demand and loose regulation has incentivized mass production, and science to isolate and “enhance” hemp’s compounds. Education is paramount to increasing consumer consciousness, and avoiding both the environmental and quality mistakes of the factory food industry.