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CBD and Hemp: Find Out What the Difference Is and How To Identify Safer Products

What is THC in hemp-based products and CBD? Learn more about how NSF protects you through our certification and testing.

The buzz around CBD and hemp seems to be popping up everywhere. But while CBD and hemp come from the same Cannabis sativa plant that produces marijuana, they are more about healing than getting high. Enthusiasts claim CBD calms anxiety, relieves pain, soothes sleep, reduces inflammation and boosts immunity; hemp is typically found in dietary supplements, beverages and skin creams.

Even established brands may have limited experience sourcing, authenticating, producing and packaging products containing hemp or hemp-derived CBD.

Some use the terms interchangeably, but it is important to know the difference before purchasing these much-talked-about ingredients on the market. And why it is critical to make sure they are tested and certified.

“These products can be manufactured and marketed by small startups with little expertise in quality management, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and labeling requirements, which creates potential risk and confusion for consumers,” said NSF Certified for Sport® Technical Manager John Travis. “Even established brands may have limited experience sourcing, authenticating, producing and packaging products containing hemp or hemp-derived CBD.”

History Lesson: Where the Confusion Started

Until about five years ago, federal regulation in the United States meant that industrial hemp could not be cultivated for commercial use. It wasn’t until the 2018 Farm Bill was passed that farmers could grow and sell hemp plant extracts, thereby allowing them to grow industrial hemp. The legality of cultivating and selling hemp-derived products for commercial use brought immediate growth in the industry. Hundreds of products, such as hemp oil and CBD oil, became available to the masses. But such a sudden surge of compounds like CBD and hemp also led to confusion about the differences between these products.

What's the Difference?

Since the 2018 Farm Bill, these products have hit the market quickly and with much fanfare, but with increasing popularity comes increasing confusion. What’s important to note is that CBD and hemp oil have only trace amounts of allowable THC, the active psychoactive compound in marijuana.

CBD stands for “cannabidiol,” a chemical found within the hemp plant. CBD is extracted from different parts of the hemp plant, or any cannabidiol-rich cannabis strain. Before being processed, the product is heated after extraction to activate the CBD and other cannabinoid compounds found in cannabis. The result is a concentrated CBD extract, which is usually mixed in with a carrier oil and sold as CBD oil. When it’s ingested, users can feel its effects.

Hemp oil, also known as hemp seed oil, is extracted only from the seeds of the hemp plant. Hemp seeds do not contain a significant number of cannabinoids. Hemp-based products are widely used in the United States in products ranging from dietary supplements, beverages and edibles to oils, creams and sprays. They are typically found in food and skin care products and offer remedies for anxiety as well as pain management, nutritional and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Why Testing Is Essential

Without rigorous requirements for testing, hemp and hemp-derived CBD products may contain:

  • Pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants
  • E. coli, salmonella and other microbes
  • Undeclared ingredients
  • Quantities of ingredients that conflict with labeled amounts
  • THC at more than 0.3% by dry weight

Enter NSF

We are a mission-driven organization focused on protecting and improving human health. Our scientists provide certification according to rigorous standards, validated tests and third-party audits needed to protect consumers using products that contain hemp. NSF is committed to providing services that help manufacturers produce, process and package hemp-based products consistent with GMPs, appropriate quality-control procedures and applicable labeling requirements. With our decades of technical experience in these product categories, NSF is uniquely qualified to serve the fast-growing hemp industry in the United States and to help protect consumers who use these products.

What To Look For

Hemp-based products and CBD can receive certification for their ingredients as supplements or as essential oils (organic only), and for Good Manufacturing Practices under their applicable standard category. On the manufacturer’s or brand’s website, look for the NSF mark and a description of the certification.

For example, if a sports nutrition brand has CBD as an ingredient and has met all the requirements to be listed as NSF Certified for Sport, these are the marks to look for on the product:

And for facilities, the NSF/ANSI 455 series of standards have categories based on the product type produced in the facility. See below for marks that may appear on the website of the manufacturer or on its marketing materials (although they are not allowed on products).

“Certification provides a level of transparency and trust that consumers can’t get any other way,” said Travis.

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