Brands Are Betting Big on CBD-Laced Foods—but Are They Really Going to Be Beneficial?

Photo: Unsplash / Emily Wilson
In my LA neighborhood, CBD has just about overtaken the avocado as the hyped-up ingredient du jour. On a typical morning, I start my day at yoga, where I have the option to buy a CBD-infused juice after the cool-down. Afterward, I stop for groceries at a local health-food store and spot CBD honey and chocolate on the shelves. And as I stroll home, I pass an indie bakery advertising CBD donuts on a sidewalk chalkboard.

Of course, food trends heat up quickly on the West Coast, especially when they're linked with health benefits like the ones attributed to CBD—a non-psychoactive compound found in hemp and cannabis plants. What makes the ingredient's ascent so surprising is that it hasn't yet been FDA-approved for food or drinks, and it's technically been barred from these products in states like California and New York. (The ban hasn't been strongly enforced, in most cases, which is why a lot of indie brands aren't heeding it.)  But it's safe to say that if and when the FDA does decide that edible preparations of CBD are kosher, we'll be hit with an even bigger flood of cannabinoid edibles hitting the market.

Need proof? As the federal government continues to hammer out its stance on CBD, big food conglomerates, too, are priming themselves to jump into the fray. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola execs have both stated that they're watching the market, while Mondelez Foods—maker of Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, among many other snacks—is reportedly looking to create new product lines with CBD as a main ingredient, pending FDA approval. Most recently, Ben & Jerry's announced that it's interested in developing a CBD ice cream. The brand is so invested in the trend, it submitted a comment to the FDA in support of legalization.

On one hand, it's encouraging to see that CBD—which many, many people claim has helped them reduce inflammation, anxiety, insomnia, and more—is becoming more accessible. Yet I can't help but feel a little skeptical when it comes to the CBD food and drink craze. I mean, is a CBD cookie from a corner store really enough to make a significant impact on health? Or are brands taking advantage of the fact that CBD is buzzing, without properly considering how it's best absorbed and used by our bodies?

Nutritionist and Daily Habit founder Brooke Alpert, RD, shares a lot of these thoughts. "The further away you get from the plant, the further away you are from knowing what you're really consuming," says Alpert, a holistic cannabis practitioner. She notes that often, when you're buying, say, a CBD coffee or donut from a small, independent shop, there's not much information about the amount or quality of CBD you're getting—and the actual ingredients of your snack may not be what you expected. "People are selling things that they’re claiming have CBD, but it’s actually hemp seed oil, and there’s no CBD in that," Alpert says.

Even if you are getting a product that's made with legit CBD, Tonic CBD founder Brittany Carbone points out that there's often not enough CBD in a prepared food to make a significant impact on a person's health—especially considering that CBD has been shown to lose some of its bioavailability when it's digested, versus when it's consumed sublingually, in the form of a tincture, or applied topically. "There are such low doses in infused foods and a low absorption rate for that consumption method that you're not really going to see the benefits," she says—which she says could eventually impact consumers' trust in CBD.

Laurel Angelica Myers, co-founder and COO of CBD wellness brand Prima, is also concerned about this aspect of the CBD-infused food trend. "People are given these CBD options that aren't necessarily designed for optimal bioavailability," she says. "You're putting a really expensive ingredient into something where your body's not going to access it in the way that it needs to. And then, the customer says 'Wait a second, I'm not actually getting any benefit, is CBD worth it? It's not working for me.' We see these ingredients as being really functional, therapeutic botanicals, and knowing the right way to incorporate those is really important."

For Jenelle Kim, a master herbologist and chief product formulator at JBK Wellness Labs, another reason to be wary of CBD-infused foods is the lack of federal standards around CBD. "You have to be careful right now, and it's not because of the ingredient—there certainly is a very important place for this incredible herbal ingredient, which is one of the 50 fundamental herbs of Eastern medicine," she says. "What concerns me is that there's not a lot of regulation right now. You really have to trust the company, because it's such a grey area." Without regulation, brands are free to sell products that don't deliver as promised—for instance, a 2017 study found that more than 70 percent of CBD products had higher or lower concentrations of the ingredient than stated on the label.

And let's not forget that many of the CBD-infused foods available right now are sugary desserts, like ice cream, candy, or cakes. "You can put the health halo on it, but I can't imagine that the amount of CBD in a donut [or other junk food] will be enough to counteract all the unhealthy, inflammatory parts of it," says Alpert. "That said, if you're having a fun treat and it will make you more likely to pick up a good-quality CBD supplement, it's not the worst thing."

To be fair, many people do claim to notice benefits from CBD edibles, when they're formulated the right way. If you want to try one for yourself, Mary Pryor—CEO and co-founder of cannabis inclusivity and education platform Cannaclusive—recommends looking for snacks and sips that utilize USA-grown, full-spectrum hemp extract, to take advantage of the other beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes the plant has to offer. You should also seek out products that are transparent about their third-party lab test results, which measure the purity of the CBD, and that clearly state the amount of CBD inside their products. "Knowing the source of CBD, [seeing] the certificate of analysis, and having full product ingredients listed are all very, very important," says Pryor. "If a brand can't give you that, then do not buy it."

Three edibles that pass the test: Potli's hemp-infused olive oil ($67), Beekeepers Naturals' B. Chill Raw Honey + Hemp ($50), and Grön's hemp-infused caramel sauce ($32). (Expect to pay a premium for high-quality CBD foods, just like you would for high-quality hemp extract.)

At the end of the day, CBD-infused foods probably aren't going to hurt you—but just know that depending on the product, it may not help you all that much either. "I would always advocate for people going straight to the source and getting a high-quality [CBD] supplement, where you can see the label and know exactly what you're taking," says Alpert. And, you know, just save yourself a few dollars and get a regular donut instead.

In other CBD news, the compound may help people overcome opioid addiction. And did you hear you can now get topical CBD products at CVS?

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