How to Read a Certificate of Analysis
By: Matt Elmes, PhD.
The 2018 Farm Bill made it federally legal to grow and sell hemp-derived CBD, which quickly gave rise to a massive CBD industry in the US. However, unlike THC products which are tightly regulated at the state-level. At this time there are almost no rules in place forcing CBD manufacturers to hold their products accountable for even basic levels of safety testing. There’s nothing that even forces a manufacturer to disclose what’s actually in their products! Many so-called CBD products on the market today take advantage of this loophole and sell products that don’t even contain any CBD, or products fraught with dangerous chemicals like pesticides, residual solvents, and heavy metals.
This highlights the paramount importance of lab testing in the hemp CBD space. Until federal regulations catch up and force bad players to stop acting, well, ‘bad’, it is up to consumers to vet companies that are legitimate and responsible. You shouldn’t take any company, including us at Care By Design Hemp, at their word…consumers deserve proof that they are actually getting what they are paying for and that the products they consume won’t cause any harm to themselves or loved ones. This is where Certificates of Analysis (COAs) come in!
What is a Certificate of Analysis (COA)?
A COA is a document issued by an accredited testing laboratory. A manufacturing company pays the laboratory to perform an independent assessment of their products and is issued a COA that outlines all of the lab’s results. The company that performs the lab test and issues a COA should not be the same company that manufactured or sells the product.
Let’s post some screenshots of an actual Care By Design Hemp COA and go through a real-life examples of how to read one, but before we do let’s get comfortable with the terminology we will need to understand in order to properly assess what a COA is telling us.
What do all these science-y terms on a COA mean?
Limit of Detection (LOD): This is the smallest amount of a given compound that the lab is able to detect. LODs can vary widely between different labs, but in general the lower the LOD the more sensitive the test. If your sample has a quantity that’s lower than the lab’s LOD then your result will be listed as simply ‘ND’ for ‘Not Detected’. If your LOD is 100µg/g and your product contains 90µg/g it will show up as ND, as the amount was so small that the lab was not able to detect it with their methods. It’s very important to note that a smaller LOD generally indicates higher caliber lab testing.
Limit of Quantification (LOQ):> (sometimes called LLOQ for ‘Lower Limit of Quantification’). This is the smallest amount of a given compound that a lab is able to quantify, or give a numerical value to. When a lab is reading near the LOD it’s very difficult to assign a precise value with high confidence. So, for example, if a COA’s LOD = 100µg/g, LOQ=200µg/g and your sample physically has 150µg/g of that compound in it, then the reported result on the COA will show up as “<LOQ”. This means that the compound was detected, but there wasn’t a high enough amount of it to be able to confidently assign a discrete value.
- Action Level: (sometimes called ‘Maximum Reportable Level’). If your sample’s result is higher than this number, it will fail. This is the highest level of a specific compound that is considered safe for consumption. Care By Design never sells any product that exceeds the MRL in any category. We won’t even sell products that are anywhere close to it!
What is on a COA?
It varies by industry, but in the cannabis/hemp space you should expect to see the same common elements on a COA report no matter which lab company performs the testing. Here’s what you should look out for:
Cannabinoid Potency: Quantifies the amounts of individual cannabinoids that are found in a product, such as the major plant cannabinoids CBD and THC or the minor ones like THCV, CBC, CBG, and more. This is usually expressed in terms of milligrams of cannabinoid per gram of material or as a percentage. Every 1% cannabinoid equates to 10mg/g, so a 21.4%CBD product would contain 214mg CBD per gram of material. In order for a cannabis product to fall under the definition of hemp it must contain <0.3%THC content by dry weight, and this is the section that we look to in order to confirm a product’s hemp status. (Figure 2)
Pesticides: Pesticides are chemicals that are sometimes used on plants to prevent pests from damaging or destroying a crop. These chemicals have the potential to remain on the plant and become concentrated during extraction processes. The ‘Pesticide Analysis’ section of a COA ensures that there are not unsafe levels of pesticides in your product. (Figure 3)
Heavy Metals: Heavy metals are some specific types of metals that are toxic to humans at low concentrations, such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. We need to be careful about the type of soil that is used to grow hemp because the cannabis plant just LOVES to suck up metal content from its roots! As such, the cannabis plant is known as a phytoremediator- a plant that can actively detoxify the soil that it is planted in. In fact, hemp was used in Chernobyl to reduce the metal content and toxicity of the soil following the nuclear incident in 1986! You wouldn’t want to consume the hemp used in Chernobyl just like you wouldn’t want to consume hemp grown in other toxic soil conditions. The Heavy Metals section of a COA confirms that your product does not contain dangerous levels of these metal species. (Figure 4)
Residual Solvents: There are many various ways to extract cannabinoids like CBD from the cannabis plant, and most of them involve using solvents in one form or another. Some solvents, like the ethanol found in beer, are relatively safe. While others, like chloroform or benzene, can pose dangers at even minuiscule amounts. These solvents are generally removed during the manufacturing process, but sometimes a manufacturer doesn’t adequately remove all the chemicals. The Residual Solvents section of a COA reports on the levels of solvent found in the product so you can be sure that you aren’t accidentally consuming dangerous amounts. (Figure 5)
Microbial Testing: Ever hear of a little critter called Salmonella? You probably know these bacteria as the reason you cook your chicken dinner fully before eating. B, but did you know that salmonella and other dangerous microbial species have the potential to live in cannabis products too? A COA’s Microbial Panel confirms that your product doesn’t contain these types of bacteria that can make you sick. (Figure 6)
Mycotoxins: You can kill bacteria in a product by heating or otherwise sterilizing, but this doesn’t necessarily remove all the poisons that those bacteria produced while they were alive! These residual poisons are known as mycotoxins, and this testing will confirm that your product doesn’t contain any worrisome amounts of these toxins. (Figure 7)
- Filth and Foreign Materials. This is a simple visual inspection that is documented by a lab to affirm that nothing is visible in the product that shouldn’t be there, such as hair, mold, or dirt. (Figure 8)
COAs are a must-have when choosing where to source your hemp CBD. We know this at Care By Design Hemp so we voluntarily upload complete COA reports to our website for each batch of every product that we make. We stand behind every full-spectrum CBD product we make with 100% confidence, but you don’t need to take our word for it. We encourage you to visit our COA page and spend some time understanding the report for the product you choose. You deserve the transparency and peace of mind that a COA offers!
Figure 1: COA Summary Page. The very first page of a COA report is usually a simple overview of what was tested. It includes a picture of the product that the lab received, as well as dates, lot number/sample ID, and info about the manufacturer. We can see that Care By Design Hemp’s RELIEF Sublingual Drops from lot #192326 were tested on June 18th, 2020. All images found in this blog post will be from this same exact COA report. You can find the full version on our COA page if you’d like to follow along as we go over each individual section.
Figure 2. Cannabinoid Potency Analysis. This section shows that this particular product contains 24.31mg/serving total CBD, and 0.79mg/serving THC. All minor cannabinoid species that were detected with amounts found are also shown here. Notice how the majority of minor cannabinoid species tested were detected? This is an indicator that the product is either broad- or full-spectrum., as a A hemp manufacturer who chooses to utilize CBD isolate to make their products would show ‘ND’ in all fields other than CBD. We at Care By Design Hemp believe in broad- and full-spectrum approaches to using CBD, which is apparent to the educated consumer by the diverse cannabinoid species found in the product.
Figure 3. Pesticide Analysis. Each line shown here is a different pesticide that was tested for. You can look to the column labeled ‘Action Level’ to see how much of each type of pesticide is considered to be safe for consumption….the most dangerous ones list an Action Level of 0µg/g, meaning that detecting any amount would result in a failed COA. None of these 46 pesticides were detected in the product at all, as indicated by the ‘ND’ shown next to each pesticide in the results column.
Figure 4. Heavy Metals Analysis. This section shows the results of the four heavy metal species commonly found in soil that are considered to be most dangerous. In this case, no arsenic, cadmium, or mercury were detectable at all. The result shown for lead is ‘<LLOQ’, meaning that a miniscule amount was detected, but was so little that the lab was not able to meaningfully quantify it. The Action Level for lead is shown to be 0.5µg/g, with a LOD and LLOQ of 0.01µg/g and 0.05µg/g, respectively. So this tells us the tested sample had somewhere between 0.01-0.05µg/g lead content…or in other words, it contained somewhere between 10-50x less lead content than what might be considered to be potentially dangerous.
Figure 5. Residual Solvent Analysis. This section tests for any leftover solvents that might be found in a product. It is setup in the same fashion as the previous COA sections we went through with your result listed next to the LOD, LLOQ, and Action Level. The lab did not detect any solvents other than 16.19µg/g ethanol. Ethanol is the type of alcohol you drink at a bar, and one single drop of beer contains WAY more ethanol than what is found in this entire bottle of CBD sublingual drops! For a direct comparison, this CBD dropper bottle contains (16.19µg/g ethanol* 30mL/bottle*0.94g/mL) = 457µg ethanol/bottle, while a single bottle of 5% ABV beer contains 17,750,000µg ethanol/bottle! Even if you had no idea about the comparative amount of alcohol that’s found in a beer, you can be completely assured of a high safety profile just by looking at the COA…the results show that this product contains over 300x less ethanol than its 5000µg/g Action Level.
Figure 6. Microbial Analysis. Microbial analysis is done to detects the presenceprecense of harmful species of bacteria, namely STEC (=Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) and Salmonella. You can see that neither species of bacteria was detected in the sample.
Figure 7. Mycotoxin Analysis. Mycotoxins tests are looking for toxins that bacteria produce, rather than the bacteria themselves. No mycotoxins were detected in this batch of RELIEF Sublingual Droppers.
Figure 8. Filth and Foreign Materials. This section basically confirms that nothing is in the product that shouldn’t be, such as rodent hair (IF RH ME), mold, fecal matter (IFM), soil or cinders (SSCD). This section should help to provide assurances about clean manufacturing practices being adhered to by your CBD product’s manufacturer.