Labelling of cannabis strains fails to reflect accurate chemical make-up

 Labelling of cannabis strains fails to reflect accurate chemical make-up
© iStock/David Tran

Are the labels of cannabis strains confusing and misleading? New research analyses 90,000 samples to find out.

Cannabis strains such as Indica, Sativa and hybrid are used to differentiate between cannabis categories but are these labels accurate? The research from the University of Colorado at Boulder is the largest analysis of the chemical composition of cannabis products and found commercial cannabis strain labels “do not consistently align with the observed chemical diversity” of the product.

“Our findings suggest that the prevailing labelling system is not an effective or safe way to provide information about these products,” said co-author Brian Keegan, an assistant professor of Information Science at CU Boulder. “This is a real challenge for an industry that is trying to professionalise itself.”

The study is in the PLOS One scientific journal.

Should labels be standardised for cannabis strains?

Commercial cannabis strain names such as Girl Scout Cookie are not regulated, and you may receive a different product if you buy it from various sellers.

Generally, the psychoactive compound THC and CBD dosages are on the label; companies are not obliged to include information about other compounds, including terpenes, which influence the smell and the feel. They also have the freedom to name their cannabis strain whatever they want.

“A farmer cannot just pick up an apple and decide to call it a Red Delicious. A beer manufacturer cannot just arbitrarily label their product a Double IPA. There are standards. But that is not the case for the cannabis industry,” said co-author Nick Jikomes, director of science and innovation for the e-commerce cannabis marketplace

The researchers analysed similar same-named cannabis strains around the United States using data science tools. They employed a massive database of chemical analyses compiled by Leafly from cannabis strain testing centres.

Following the analysis of the cannabinoid and terpene make-up of around 90,000 samples from six states, the researchers found the majority of the cannabinoids in cannabis strains are the psychoactive THC.

The terpene content in the cannabis strain fell into three categories: Those high in the terpenes caryophyllene and limonene; those high in myrcene and pinene; and those high in terpinolene and myrcene. Surprisingly, those categories do not correspond to the Indica, Sativa and hybrid labelling system.

“In other words,” the authors wrote, “it is likely that a sample with the label Indica will have an indistinguishable terpene composition as samples labelled Sativa or hybrid.”

Inconsistent strains on the market

The researchers found that biochemically similarities within the products depend on the cannabis strain. They found some cannabis strains were similar product to product, but others were incredibly inconsistent.

“There was actually more consistency among strains than I had expected,” Jikomes said. “That tells me that the cultivators, at least in some cases, may not be getting enough credit.”

“The study also found that the existing recreational cannabis available in the United States is quite homogenous, with plenty of room to innovate new breeds with different chemical profiles. That could be useful for both recreational and medicinal use.”

“The founding fathers of cannabis research call it a pharmaceutical cornucopia because it produces so many different chemicals that interact with our bodies in different ways. We are only scratching the surface.”

“As consumers increasingly use cannabis for specific purposes, including health purposes, precision in labelling will become even more critical,” Keegan said.

Keegan hopes that products can be categorised on a more comprehensive understanding of their chemical make-up and labelled with more in-depth details.


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