How hard is it to formulate CBD in food and drinks? – Nutritional Outlook

Formulating a functional food or beverage with cannabidiol (CBD) takes a bit of a masochistic streak.

Sure, there’s gold to be mined in the hemp-derived CBD products market, a market that cannabis-industry analysts at the Brightfield Group predict will be worth $22 billion by 2022.1 And sure, a bumper crop of research is investigating the extent to which benefits ranging from pain relief to clearer skin may be attributable to this cannabinoid—a non-psychoactive cousin of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) occurring naturally in cannabis plants like hemp and marijuana.

But even setting aside the regulatory uncertainty that still hovers over CBD—hemp cultivation may now be legal, but FDA doesn’t yet know how it will oversee the plant’s constituent cannabinoids—CBD is, quite simply, a tricky substance to work with.

“It’s a very inefficient molecule,” says Mark Coffie, chief business development officer, Ananda Scientific (Greenwood Village, CO). “It’s a very inefficient molecule to extract, and it’s an inefficient molecule to get into the body.”

Same goes for getting it into food and beverage systems. But brands can’t afford to ignore CBD, so it comes as some relief—though little surprise—that CBD processors are developing clever technologies for delivering it to consumers who crave it, in products they’ll crave.

Titrated Optimism

The excitement around CBD is inescapable. But, says Jesse Lopez, president and CEO, Geocann (Fort Collins, CO), “CBD is just one of more than 80 to 100 cannabinoids that deliver a range of health benefits. Clinical trials are underway, with more starting each day, to explore the range of health benefits cannabinoids may deliver, and this goes well beyond a single cannabinoid.”

The heightened interest in CBD owes to evidence of its potential anti-seizure, analgesic, neuroprotective, anxiolytic, antidepressant, antipsychotic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties—just to list the entries in the “A” section.

But prudence remains in order, warns David Chadwick, CEO, Leading Edge Pharms (Henderson, NV), for the same body of research responsible for the hope also hints that “while CBD is generally well tolerated and considered safe, it may cause adverse reactions in some people.” Because CBD can also interact with some medications, he advises consumers to speak with their physicians before including CBD-containing foods, drinks, or supplements in their routines.

Tally of Challenges

It certainly can’t hurt; as Lopez points out, “Even with the recent explosion of CBD products hitting the marketplace, we’re still the infancy of this ingredient and its plant source.”

And that matters not just to consumers and their doctors, but to product developers, too. Lopez emphasizes that CBD “is a relatively new ingredient with a learning curve for formulators, who have to manage both formulation stability and ingredient stability over time relative to oxidation and CBD potency.” Squaring that circle is a work in progress.

The first hurdle involves getting your hands on a consistent starting material. “Once you achieve a consistent starting CBD material,” Lopez says, “then palatability is a challenge, especially at the higher per-serving doses consumers seek.”

Coffie adds that CBD is “truly insoluble in water, lacks absorption when taken orally, is a variably stable and very sensitive molecule, and—the ultimate piece of the puzzle—displays low bioavailability. All those factors hamper development of products containing it.”

Beverages, he says, are “the toughest nuts to crack.”

Chadwick agrees, noting that the main culprit is solubility. Key is keeping the CBD soluble in the beverage so it doesn’t settle out as sediment, he explains. “Further, the CBD must be completely soluble or opacity will result, making the beverage less attractive to the consumer. And there’s always a concern for CBD to influence the color, taste, and texture of the beverage.”

Though formulating CBD into food is more straightforward, it’s hardly trouble-free ether: “Solubility may be less an issue in foods than in beverages,” Chadwick continues, “but taste and color may still influence the final product.”

Form Forecasts Function

Wisely, suppliers are creating CBD ingredients that tackle some of these challenges.

One option is CBD isolate, which Chadwick says is pure CBD; meanwhile, full-spectrum and broad-spectrum CBD extracts exhibit “varying degrees of concentration and composition,” he says. Full-spectrum extracts are unfiltered and include all cannabinoids and terpenes; in broad-spectrum products, the THC and/or other specific cannabinoids have been removed. “The higher the concentration of CBD in the CBD extract oil, the lighter the color,” Chadwick notes. “This is an advantage since it won’t influence the final color of products as much as a darker CBD oil will.”

So which to use where? Pure CBD is appealing for its lack of color or taste—and “one knows the exact composition of the ingredient,” Chadwick says. But its poor solubility confounds formulation, so many turn to the solubility and stability of CBD oil at about 85% purity for some skincare, food, and drink applications, rather than to 99.9%-pure CBD crystal isolate, he says.

And while dissolving pure CBD in an oil carrier has been a game-changer in improving the compound’s formulation compatibility, “again, that can influence the taste and color of the finished food or beverage,” Chadwick concludes. “So it can be a tradeoff depending on the product.”

Of Tradeoffs and Test Results

Having to trade sensory qualities for solubility or stability—to say nothing of bioactive potency—leaves formulators in a bind. “Simply put,” Lopez observes, “if the product doesn’t taste good, consumers won’t buy it a second time. They also want to know it works and that they’re getting the CBD benefits they seek.”

Alas, he believes the category’s development has been stymied by what he calls “poor quality and inconsistent products that fall short of even meeting label claims for potency. Reports of product testing from FDA and others has caused a ‘buyer-beware’ mentality with consumers.”

Indeed, heat treatments as mild as baking can destabilize CBD, compromising its bioavailability and subsequent therapeutic benefits, Chadwick says. “And keeping a food or drink in direct sunlight may cause issues like degradation of potency, color change, taste influences, and more.”

No wonder analyses are coming back spotty, with some off-the-shelf products testing as mislabeled due to diminished active levels. “Never before has FDA been post-testing product in the nutraceutical space as much as they’re doing now in the cannabinoid/CBD space,” Coffie says. “Most CBD molecules today have a six-week to six-month shelf life depending on processing and development, so a beverage could have half the 10 mg that was there on the day it was bottled.”

In other words, we have a lot to learn. But the industry remains bullish. Just ask Lopez. “It’s exciting to consider the possibilities for formulating CBD for improved performance and an even broader range of safe and effective applications that meet consumer preferences,” he says. “It’s clear that cannabinoids will play a role in health consumers’ daily regimens, from morning coffee and personal care to condition-specific formulations.” If we those formulations can deliver on all fronts, we’ll all be better off for it.

Read on to learn how CBD suppliers are eliminating hurdles to successful food and beverage formulation.


  1. Garber-Paul E. “Exclusive: New Report Predicts CBD Market Will Hit $22 Billion by 2022.” Rolling Stone. Published September 11, 2018. Accessed at:

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