What are the Primary Methods for Extracting CBD?

Virtually all hemp products on the market today are made with a hemp extract, rather than containing the raw flowering buds of the hemp plant, from which we derive all of the compounds we know and love like CBD, terpenes, nutrients, and more.  Hemp extraction has become quite an advanced process over the years, with major players in the CBD industry going above and beyond to deliver the purest, most bioavailable, and most generally effective extracts possible.

There is more than one way to extract the compounds out of the hemp plant, as you are about to find out.  The fact of the matter is that some of these methods yield higher-quality products than others, which is why we are going to offer a breakdown of the primary extraction methods that exist today.

What are the Primary Methods for Extracting CBD?

What Does it Mean to Extract CBD, and Why Do We Do it?

When mentioning extraction methods used in the CBD industry, we are referring to the process of taking the desirable compounds out of the raw plant material through a technological method that gently lifts these compounds away.  Hemp extracts are used to produce tinctures, edibles, vape oils, topicals and many other types of formulas that can be found on today’s market.  

A hemp extract is an oil-based concentrate that, ideally, offers maximum purity so that each dose delivers only the desirable hemp compounds to the body.  We create hemp extracts for a few reasons.  One is that it makes it easy to formulate products.  Hemp extracts are easily blended with other ingredients so that we can make CBD-rich formulas with homogenous consistencies.

Hemp extracts are active, meaning that the compounds are as effective as possible because they’ve been pre-heated using specialized methods.  Raw flower is not active, because the compounds have not undergone this specialized heating process.  In other words, using a topical with the raw flower blended in simply isn’t going to give us the noticeable results that we’re accustomed to with this delivery method.

Also, hemp extracts give us control over what goes into a CBD formula.  For instance, thanks to extraction processes, we can create broad spectrum hemp, which contains every compound in the plant except for THC.  This is because extracts allow us to isolate specific compounds in the plant material to either concentrate them or discard them from the other compounds.

Why Does the Extraction Method Used by a Company Matter So Much Anyway?

There are various means for extracting the compounds of the hemp plant, and as it turns out, some extraction methods are far more conducive to creating quality, effective products than others.  The extraction method used by a company determines several factors pertaining to the end product.

  • Stability: A term used to describe how stable the compounds of hemp are after they’ve been removed from the raw plant material.  Stability is a good thing, because once compounds become destabilized, they break down more quickly, and once they’ve broken down, they are no longer potent enough to deliver effects.
  • Purity: Refers to the chemical composition of the hemp extract.  It should be as pure as possible, meaning that there are no compounds other than the desirable ones in the hemp plant.  But some extraction methods introduce impurities, or unwanted compounds, into the final product.
  • Bioavailability: The ability that a hemp extract has to fully absorb into the body.  Therefore, bioavailability determines effectiveness.  There is no way to quantify bioavailability with a numerical value, so we have to rely on companies using the best extraction methods to ensure a highly bioavailable product.  Some extraction methods reduce bioavailability by damaging the compounds of hemp, making them less likely to fully absorb into the bloodstream due to molecular changes that affect their chemical structure.

Method #1: CO2 Extraction

You’ll find that the majority of hemp products on the market contain an extract that has been produced using the CO2 extraction method, because this is widely considered the best method that there is today.  CO2 extraction is phenomenally advanced and is known for yielding the most bioavailable product of all, while maintaining the structural stability of the compounds and avoiding the introduction of impurities into the final product.

CO2 extraction involves a 3-chamber process.  One chamber contains pressurized carbon dioxide, and an adjacent chamber contains the raw hemp plant material.  Above is a third chamber that collects the extract produced by pushing the CO2 through the plant material.  This method is highly effective, yet it is very gentle on the compounds so that they remain stable, without being damaged throughout the process.

Method #2: Solvent Extraction

Solvent-based extraction methods are rarely used by hemp companies nowadays, because they simply don’t yield the same level of quality associated with CO2 extraction.  Solvent extraction involves applying a solvent to the plant material, such as butane or isopropyl, which dissolves specific compounds in the raw plant so that you end up with a compound-rich concentrate.  

There are a few reasons why solvent-based methods are no longer popular on a large scale.  

  1. Almost inevitably, trace amounts of the solvent remain in the extract, and these solvents greatly disrupt the purity levels of the hemp itself, while potentially having a negative impact on flavor as well.  After all, who wants to have their CBD with a side of butane?
  2. Solvent-based methods are less likely to yield a highly stable product.  Solvents are harsh, so to speak, and can damage the compounds in a way that causes them to break down at a faster rate.  What that means is that products made using solvent-based extraction expire sooner than those that were extracted using CO2 extraction.
  3. Solvent-based extraction is dangerous due to its highly flammable nature.  While it is inexpensive, the hazards associated with this method are largely not worth it.

Method #3: Oil Extraction

The oldest extraction method that exists is oil-based extraction, and it’s one that you can easily do at home.  It simply involves placing the raw plant material into a pan or pot, and adding an oil, such as olive oil or hempseed oil.  Then, you cook the plant on low heat for several hours so that the oil ends up becoming infused with the compounds of hemp, and the raw plant material can be discarded.

Oil extraction is not that different from making an infused oil for cooking.  For instance, when you place rosemary and olive oil together in a pan, eventually the oil takes on the flavor and aroma of the rosemary, while absorbing its compounds.  These compounds leave the raw plant material, so that the actual rosemary sprigs can be thrown out.

The problem with oil extraction is that it’s not an ideal method in commercial settings due to being unstable and breaking down quickly.  CBD products on the market that are produced using this method will degrade and expire within a noticeably short period of time, giving them such a short shelf life that it may lose its potency before you even finish up the product.

Overall, oil-based methods are never pure because the compounds in the oil itself are present in the extract.  Oil extraction, therefore, is only a good idea if you, the consumer, wish to make your own hemp extract using raw flower.

Method #4: Distillation

Distillation is used to make pure cannabinoid extracts, as opposed to extracts that contain a wide array of hemp compounds.  For instance, most CBN, CBG and delta 8-based products are produced using distillation, because this method purifies the desirable cannabinoid so that there are only trace amounts of other compounds present.

Distillation involves the process of applying distilled steam to the plant material repeatedly and at specific temperatures until only the desirable compound remains.  Different temperatures successfully discard each of the unwanted compounds while protecting the cannabinoid that is going to go into the final product.  Distillation, like CO2 extraction, yields a highly stable and pure end product.

Applying This Information When Shopping for CBD

Now that you understand how each hemp extraction process affects the end product, you can become more discerning of a customer when shopping for CBD, to ensure you only buy products that were extracted using the most preferable methods listed above.  The good thing is that most companies clearly state their extraction methods on their website.  If this information is lacking, we recommend that you contact a company to ask them, because as you can see, the extraction method used can make quite a difference.

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