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The Great Debate
Today, the amount of cannabis products available to consumers is staggering. Broadly speaking, these products generally fall into two categories, flower and concentrates. Flower is the natural state of the cannabis plant, exactly as nature intended it to be. Concentrates are extracts of the cannabis plant, produced in a variety of different methods to yield different consistencies and ratios of beneficial compounds. If you want to learn more about basic forms of extraction, check out our blog post: Cannabis Concentrates: A Deep Dive Into the World of Extraction.
Within the cannabis industry, there are several different categories in which products are classified in order to provide the consumer with an idea about what compounds are in a product outside of just THC or CBD. Broadly speaking, you will find concentrate (or concentrate based products) labeled as whole-plant, full-spectrum, broad-spectrum extracts, and isolates. Unfortunately in the cannabis community, there is no clearly defined consensus on what any of these terms mean, and that is where the great debate in the industry lies. The goal of this blog is to look at why these terms are important and to clearly define what each one means based on a variety of sources.
Why You Should Care
Cannabis consumers often make their way into medical marijuana because they have tried conventional medications that did not work for them and found cannabis to be more effective. In the medical marijuana community, there is a strong preference for products that contain a wide variety of compounds found in the cannabis plant. Many patients find better relief using cannabis products that contain all of its natural active compounds, as opposed to using just THC or CBD. This may be surprising given the fact that THC and CBD are the compounds most studied, and the ones that “should be” delivering all the therapeutic effects. To understand this conundrum we need to look at what modern medicine can teach us.
Many of the drugs currently on the market in terms of modern medicine are small, chemically manufactured molecules (SMOLS). This preference stems from the fact that SMOLS are easier to study and patent when compared to a plant preparation that contains hundreds of molecules. Anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories), and pain medications all fall into this category of SMOLS.
Similarly, THC and CBD are small molecules. However, rather than being chemically manufactured in a lab, they were manufactured by millions of years of evolution. Cannabinoids are not produced naturally in isolation, but rather in concert with hundreds of other compounds present in the cannabis plant. This symphony of compounds is the basis of what many now call the “Entourage Effect”. By taking a single molecule from the plant and trying to single it out to make it fit into the paradigm of modern medicine, we ignore the complexity of nature and miss out on its genius.
The Entourage Effect: Fact or Fiction
The entourage effect is a theory for the therapeutic synergy between the cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes found in the cannabis plant. This theory was first put forward by one of the pioneers of modern medical cannabis, Dr. Ethan Russo, in his landmark paper: “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects” which was focused on reviewing the current literature on cannabinoid and terpene science. Several studies point to this theory holding true, examples of which can be found here, here, here, and here.
Recently, however, this theory has come under scrutiny within the scientific community. Doctors, scientists, and researchers in favor of dismissing the entourage effect claim that the evidence is still too preliminary to say this theory holds true. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that out of all the major terpenes tested that are abundant in the cannabis plant, none of them were able to alter the functioning of THC at CB1 or CB2 receptor sites. That being said, the authors of this paper (contrary to its title and sensationalized headlines in the media) state that their study does not disprove the presence of an entourage effect at all. It seems to be the case that the answer is just more complex than we initially thought.
Based on the known therapeutic effects of cannabinoids and terpenes, it seems like there is more to the story in terms of effects than simply THC or CBD in isolation. These interactions may not happen within the endocannabinoid system, as was originally thought to be the case, but rather systematically by way of many different receptors in our brains and bodies. This is a major reason why drug companies prefer SMOLS to plant medicines with hundreds of compounds. It may be harder to study, but for anyone who has tried whole-plant cannabis compared to isolated forms of THC or CBD, the difference is undeniable. While more research is absolutely necessary to figure out exactly how this theory works, we can’t ignore the science and anecdotal reports that say the entourage effect is in fact real.
Can’t We All Just Get Along
When looking for cannabis products, especially in the medical market, it is critical to know exactly what you are getting. With an understanding of the entourage effect, you can see why it is important to have terms that clearly define what therapeutic compounds are in a given product. Terms like whole-plant, full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, and isolate are meant to do just that. Traditionally, each of these terms has meant different things to different groups of people.
For example, there is a major disparity in the way that full-spectrum and broad-spectrum are described by the cannabis industry and the hemp (CBD) industry. Many of the companies in the hemp or CBD industry define full-spectrum extracts as any product that contains minor cannabinoids INCLUDING THC. They label Broad-spectrum extracts as any product that contains minor cannabinoids EXCLUDING THC. You can find examples here, here, here, and here.
Most cannabis companies (and a few CBD companies) follow a different definition for these terms. The term full-spectrum is used to define products that contain a wide spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, whereas broad-spectrum is used to define products that contain a limited number of these beneficial compounds. Typically, broad-spectrum products are lacking in adequate levels of terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids. Examples of this definition can be found here, here, and here. Even among these seemingly similar definitions, none of them fully align.
Whole-plant extract seems like it should be the most straightforward. However, whole-plant and full-spectrum are often used interchangeably to make this entire situation even more confusing. Whole-plant extracts, as the name implies, usually contain all of the compounds found in the plant including cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes, lipids, chlorophyll, waxes, etc. Products like RSO and ice-water hash, and cannabutter are great examples of whole-plant extracts.
The only term that everyone agrees on is isolates. As the name implies, these are isolated extracts of cannabinoids such as THC or CBD that have everything else removed, including other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. These extracts would be most similar to the SMOLS referenced above. One advantage of an isolate is the lack of other cannabinoids such as THC. Someone who would like to use CBD but regularly gets drug tested can use a CBD isolate without having to worry about the small amount of THC that may be present in other extracts.
A Way Forward
Before we draw the final line in the sand on these terms, we need to consider what the scientific community has to say on the issue of cannabis extracts. One study used “cannabis extract” which was essentially just THC and CBD. Another study used a “botanical drug preparation” which included cannabinoids and terpenes. In line with this is GW pharmaceuticals cannabis-derived medication Sativex which contains a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC, along with other minor cannabinoids and terpenes. The patent for this medication clearly defines the term “botanical drug” as an extract of one or more cannabis plants with wax esters, glycerides, fatty acid residues, terpenes, carotenes, and flavonoids removed. Even in the scientific and medical community, there seems to be some confusion around this subject.
Based on this body of research into the terms whole-plant, full-spectrum, and broad-spectrum, Baked Bros™ has created a formal definition for each term. We feel these definitions accurately map onto the names of each term and help clear the ambiguity that is present in the industry on this important subject.
Whole-Plant Extract: A cannabis product that preserves all the compounds present in the raw plant including, cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, waxes, esters, lipids, chlorophyll, etc.
Full-Spectrum Extract: A cannabis product that contains all the therapeutic compounds present in the cannabis plant including, cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Natural waxes, esters, lipids, chlorophyll, etc. are typically removed, but they don’t need to be for an extract to fall under this category.
Broad-Spectrum Extract: A cannabis product that contains some, but not all, of the therapeutic compounds present in the cannabis plant including, cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids with the waxes, esters, lipids, chlorophyll, etc removed.
Isolate Extract: A cannabis product that contains one primary cannabinoid with all other compounds removed.
These simple definitions should make navigating through the plethora of cannabis products available a little easier. If you are looking to truly maximize what cannabis can do for you, use products that contain either whole-plant or full-spectrum (Baked Bros™) extracts to reap the benefits of the entourage effect. Simply put, that’s just the way nature intended it to be.
If you're interested in growing your own marijuana, check out this post!