CBD-fortified Everything: What’s the Deal?

The hemp derivative is in everything from gummy bears to soda. Here’s what you should know about the latest feel-better trend.

by Erin L. Boyle Health Writer

You’ve seen its health benefits touted on the internet, TV, and magazines. You’ve heard it can do everything from reduce anxiety to help you sleep better. You’ve found it in your local gas station and on the shelves of the most expensive boutique shop in town. You've encountered it on dessert menus, in coffee drinks, and available as gummy chews.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that CBD is everywhere right now. The buzzy acronym stands for cannabidiol, one of more than 100 compounds found in the cannabis—or marijuana—plant. Unlike another popular cannabinoid acronym, THC (short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD doesn’t cause the euphoric high associate with smoking marijuana, but it does create a relaxation response that proponents say can be used for wellness benefits.

With that in mind, more and more companies are creating CBD products to help people ingest, drink, and apply the compound as a cream, as well as use it other ways (see: vaping, oils, tinctures, even suppositories). In fact, industry analysists have predicted that the CBD market could hit $22 billion by 2022.

“You can find CBD in anything you can eat. We’ve seen it in potato chips, popcorn, gummies, brownies, cookies, capsules. If you can eat it, you can put CBD in it, and people are doing it,” says Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

He, along with many other researchers in the U.S. and around the world, have been looking into the effects of CBD as an edible. It’s the wild, wild west of wellness products, and raises many questions, like: Is CBD safe in cookies? Will it lose its potency in soft drinks? Is it even legal to eat it? Plus, how do you know it’s really cannabidiol when it’s been added to things like honey?

And, of course, the biggest question of all: Does this stuff work? Here’s what the experts have to say about the booming CBD business.

Is CBD Safe to Eat?

Scientists are still learning a lot about how and why CBD works, what it’s most effective for (and what it isn’t), and what the safety profile is for a variety of populations, says Ryan McLaughlin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience at Washington State University in Pullman.

While it’s unclear if eating one type of food with CBD in it is more or less safe than another type, McLaughlin recommends caution, especially when it comes to long-term CBD edible use if you’re on other medications.

It could possibly affect liver enzymes that break down key meds in the body, he says, causing you to have too much of those drugs in your system. It’s speculation right now and the research is ongoing, but if you take medications for your condition, talk with your doc before diving headfirst into the world of CBD.

Is CBD in Food Legal?

Beyond Epidiolex, an antiseizure medication, CBD is not approved for medical use—although that might come as a surprise given how hard some companies advertise as its health benefits. But food isn’t regulated by the FDA the same way drugs are, so many companies bend the rules by putting CBD in edibles instead.

This has led to confusion, as the FDA says on its website that it’s “currently illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement,” yet plenty such products exist openly in stores. “The FDA is still establishing regulations over hemp-derived CBD products,” Vandrey says.

Cannabis-related products currently exist in a complicated regulatory space overall, he explains: “You can have CBD that is legal and CBD that is illegal, it all depends on how it was sourced.” If it was derived from hemp, (defined as cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC), then it’s legal, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). However, “CBD that is either synthesized in a laboratory or derived from cannabis that contains greater than 0.3% THC is an illegal controlled substance in the eyes of the DEA,” says Vandrey.

Is CBD Really in My Food?

Maybe, maybe not. Since it’s not regulated, you’re relying on the seller to be honest, McLaughlin says. And because CBD typically has limited side effects and is well-tolerated, it’s difficult to tell. Did that gummy make you feel better? It could be the placebo effect. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of the 84 CBD products purchased online and then tested, 26% contained less CBD than labeled, enough to negate potential benefits.

“Consumers do have to protect themselves,” says Vandrey. “Some products tested by independent laboratories have been found to contain heavy metals, residual solvents, and non-listed cannabinoid substances—things that could be harmful to your health.”

Another concern: Products listing only CBD might have trace amounts of THC—not enough to cause cognitive issues, but enough that could show up as a positive result on, say, a drug test for your new job, Vandrey points out.

Does Edible CBD Work?

How you take CBD matters, McLaughlin says. Ingesting it orally in the form of food or drink means you’re likely using much lower doses than the amount found to be effective in pre-clinical and early clinical trials. “You can certainly eat CBD or have gummies, and that’s a [convenient] way of taking it,” McLaughlin says. “But it’s questionable whether these doses are therapeutically relevant.”

Still, people swear by CBD’s power of reducing pain, anxiety, and stress. So why and how is it working if their doses are much lower than those in studies? Researchers don’t know yet, says McLaughlin. Along with the placebo effect, there’s the fact that ingested CBD stays in the body a long time (it seems to have a half-life of 30 hours), so it’s efficacy may accumulate over weeks and months.

In his forthcoming study on CBD edibles, Vandrey and his colleagues have found the form of CBD you eat and how you eat it impacts how your body absorbs it, too. “If it’s encapsulated, or in a syrup, or in a tincture, we see differences in the amount of CBD that gets absorbed,” he says. When eaten with other food, especially high-fat meals, you get greater absorption than if it’s eaten on an empty stomach or with low-fat meals, he says.

While researchers continue to explore the possibilities of CBD as a wellness product, one thing is for sure: With more than 1,000 CBD brands on the market this year, this is one trend that here to stay a while.

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Erin L. Boyle
Meet Our Writer
Erin L. Boyle

Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is an award-winning freelance medical writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience. She’s traveled the world for a decade to bring the latest in medical research to doctors. Health writing is also personal for her: she has several autoimmune diseases and migraines with aura, which she writes about for HealthCentral. Learn more about her at erinlynnboyle.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinLBoyle.