Marijuana-infused foods continue to become a common reality on at least some (well-regulated) shelves.

The psychoactive form of cannabis comes from the flowers of the female Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. The male plant doesn’t produce usable flowers, and a pollinated female plant produces seeds, which sharply lowers the plant’s potency. The flowering top contains the highest concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as other cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD).

“Marijuana as a food ingredient has long provided recreational consumers, as well as medical patients, with an alternative delivery of THC,” says Rachel Zemser, CFS, CCS, founder, A La Carte Connections, LLC, San Francisco. “Getting into the marijuana-infused foods arena, however, can be intimidating. Regulatory issues and consumer-demand are shifting back and forth rapidly, not to mention rife with misconceptions.”

Legal cannabis “edibles,” as they’re nicknamed, are the fastest-growing segment of the nascent marijuana industry. The types of edibles sold in states where medical and/or recreational use is permitted typically include chocolates, brownies, cookies, hard candies, gummies, crisped rice treats and beverages.

Zemser provides tips to processors wanting to fire up an edible marijuana business. “Being aware of the finished product’s precise potency is important for both regulators and consumers,” she cautions.

Deciding how much cannabis should be used in a given marijuana edible is complicated, adds Zemser. “This is due in part to the plant’s multiple bioactive ingredients and other chemical compounds,” she explains. Also, different strains of marijuana have different levels of THC, similar to the way capsaicin levels vary among different types of chile pepper plants. The content of active compounds can differ widely, not only from plant to plant but even within the same plant.

Generally accepted serving sizes have been standardized across the over 30 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis in some form, for medical and/or recreational purposes. For recreational use, legal cannabis edibles are generally limited to 10 mg THC per serving. Medical dosages, as prescribed by physicians for specific conditions, can go higher.

“It’s more sensible for the processor to establish and control the cannabinoid content in milligram amounts,” says Zemser. This is especially important in states such as Colorado and Washington that strictly limit THC content to 100 mg per food unit sold (typically 10 servings containing 10 mg THC per serving).

The processing itself requires finesse from legal cannabis edibles manufacturers. “Although cooking or heating cannabis does not reduce THC potency, oxidation does,” says Zemser. “Marijuana and its extracts should be stored in an airtight containers and in a freezer to maintain potency.” Cannabinoid oils, butters and other cannabis ingredients should be carefully stored and handled to prevent degradation.

Zemser recommends that processors take advantage of professional testing labs, and they should test the fat or alcohol in which the marijuana has been infused, as well as the final food product. “THC content is determined via gas or liquid chromatography, by professionally trained scientists, and on expensive equipment,” she says. “As with any bioactive ingredient, sourcing should be meticulous and only from established, supervised and qualified licensed suppliers.”

David P. B. Feder, RDN, is the executive editor, technical, for Prepared Foods magazine.

Cannabis Ingredients Primer
by Douglas J. Peckenpaugh

Manufacturers of legal cannabis edibles and beverages generally work with three types of cannabis ingredients, all readily available from suppliers: cannabis-infused butter, cannabinoid oils and water-soluble cannabinoids.

Cannabis-infused butter. Often known as “cannabutter,” cannabis-infused butter is made by infusing the cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds from decarboxylated cannabis flower into butter under low heat for a set period of time, then straining out the spent flower. Decarboxylation is a heat treatment that activates the non-psychoactive THCA in cannabis flower, converting it to psychoactive THC.

Many legal cannabis edibles manufacturers make their own signature cannabis-infused butters to serve as a basis for their products—particularly for baked goods like cookies and brownies.

Cannabinoid oils. Ingredient processors can extract cannabinoids using a solvent like CO2. The extract is refined to separate cannabinoids and terpenes, as well as remove potentially unwanted components, including those that might contribute off flavors. A distillation process then acts to fractionate, purify and isolate the constituent cannabinoids. Cannabinoid oils destined for use in legal cannabis edibles and beverages also undergo a decarboxylation step. The resultant product is then typically dissolved in an alcohol tincture to standardize desired cannabinoid levels on a percentage basis.

Product developers can then use the resulting pure cannabinoid oils, such as THC or CBD concentrates, as well as isolated, flavorful terpenes—which might synergistically interact with cannabinoids in the body—to fine-tune legal cannabis edibles formulations.

Ingredient suppliers are also offering customized, ready-to-use oils in common cannabinoid ratios, such as a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC.

Water-soluble cannabinoids. A newer development, water-soluble cannabinoid powders, are also now available to cannabis edibles and beverages manufacturers. This option works well in formulations where typical oil-soluble cannabinoids pose challenges, opening manufacturers to a wider range of diverse edibles possibilities. Using water-soluble cannabinoids can also positively impact cannabinoid absorption rates in the body.

Water-soluble cannabinoids are likewise available in THC-only forms, or in various ratios of CBD to THC.

Douglas J. Peckenpaugh is the group editorial director of snacks, bakery, meat, candy and Latin America at BNP Media.