All Hemp is Not Equal: What is Hemp?

What is hemp

From the rapid rise of CBD-infused, well, everything, to marijuana becoming legalized in several states, it’s safe to say hemp is having a moment.

However, the association of hemp with marijuana, combined with unclear laws and labeling has lead to quite a bit of confusion around exactly what hemp is. Is it the same as marijuana? Will it get you high? Are all cannabis derivatives created equal? And what about hemp oils, extracts, or capsules? 

Dive in with us below as we clear up the hemp-fusion.

What Is Hemp?

Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant that has been cultivated by humans for upwards of 12,000 years. [*] Archeological evidence shows the entire plant from root to leaves was used to make essential products such as clothing, rope, paper, shoes, building materials, canvas, food, and even medicine.

Today hemp cultivation has exploded once again thanks to the sustainability movement. As one of the most sturdy natural fibers, it’s again being used to make environmentally-friendly clothes, bedding, furniture, and has now even made its way into health foods, supplements, skincare products, and blends of hemp oils. 

One of the most common misconceptions about hemp is that it’s the same thing as marijuana. The confusion around this stems back to 1970, when the federal government banned the entire Cannabis species as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This, of course, led to the assumption that all “hemp” was the same and would get you “high.”   

Fortunately, with the recent popularity of CBD products and legalized marijuana, more information on the different varieties of cannabis has come to light. It turns out there’s a whole family of Cannabis plants, each with a different chemical makeup. 

Are Hemp and Marijuana the Same?

The short answer is no: they are simply part of the same Cannabinaceae plant family. 

To better understand this, think of citrus fruits. Oranges may be the first fruit to come to mind, but there are actually several varieties of citrus like grapefruit, lemon, lime, and tangerines, each with different vitamins and minerals. Even though they appear slightly similar, they aren’t identical. 

Hemp and marijuana are like different fruits from the citrus family. The main difference between the two is that hemp contains little to no THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the compound in marijuana that gets you “high” and has psychotropic and mind-altering effects. Specifically, hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, while marijuana contains 0.3% or more THC by dry weight.

Some other key differences:

CBD and THC Content

CBD, or Cannabidiol, is another one of the roughly 103 phytocannabinoid compounds found in cannabis plants. If you don’t know much about it yet, it’s now being used across the health industry in different forms for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and more, without getting you “high.”

While both hemp and marijuana contain CBD, hemp naturally contains higher amounts of CBD and very little THC. Because of this, it’s popular to source CBD from hemp plants instead of marijuana. There is some legality involved here as well, in that CBD sourced from marijuana plants is still considered a “controlled substance” and is therefore illegal. However, CBD sourced from hemp plants that contain 0.3% or less THC is legal according to the 2018 Farm Bill. [*]

Cultivation 

Marijuana is cultivated in a very controlled environment that requires careful maintenance of lighting, moisture, and temperature due to being used for recreational and medicinal purposes. 

Hemp, on the other hand, is cultivated for many other things aside from recreation, so it is usually grown outdoors in more natural conditions. Unlike marijuana, hemp is also cultivated for many uses in the health sphere, such as for its seeds, which are rich in amino acids, its hemp oils, which contain many beneficial fatty acids like omega 3, and of course, its CBD content, which can be made into tinctures and added to supplements.

Appearance

You’ll also notice that the appearance of hemp and marijuana plants is different. Marijuana plants have broad leaves, dense buds, and a more bushy appearance. Hemp plants, on the other hand, have skinny leaves that are thicker toward the top of the plant.

Legality

Marijuana is considered legal in only a few select states in the U.S., while hemp that contains 0.3% or less THC is legal everywhere. Marijuana-derived CBD is also considered illegal, even if it contains 0% THC.

Hemp products that contain no THC such as hemp oils, skin care, cream for pain, capsules and pills are also legal across the States. 

Labeling: CBD Oil vs. Hemp Extract vs. Hemp Seed Oil

To add another layer of confusion around hemp, labeling terms on products can be obscure. Take hemp extract and hemp seed extract: similar wording, but two totally different products. Add CBD oil into the mix and you’re probably wondering what’s what.

To put things simply, CBD is extracted from the stalks, stems, and flowers of the cannabis plant, but not from the seeds. Because of this, hemp seed oil doesn’t contain any CBD. This form of hemp oil still contains numerous benefits, including a high amount of disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory fatty acids. It’s mostly used in skincare as a nutrient-rich alternative to olive or jojoba oils.

Hemp oil and CBD oil, on the other hand, are often used interchangeably on labels, so the only clear way to know whether “hemp oil” is hemp seed oil or a CBD oil is to look for “cannabis sativa seed oil” on the ingredient list. 

CBD oil will also be labeled as cannabidiol, full-spectrum hemp, hemp oil, PCR (phytocannabinoid rich) or PCR hemp extract.

Different Types of CBD 

If you’re shopping for a CBD product, there are also quite a few different types of CBD you should be aware of. 

CBD isolate

CBD isolate is CBD in its purest form. All traces of THC, terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds are removed during the extraction process. It comes in powdered and oil form and can be added to food, stirred into drinks, or smoked or vaped.

Full spectrum

Full spectrum CBD extracts are “whole plant” extracts. Unlike the isolate, they contain all of the hemp plant’s natural cannabinoids and antioxidants. Of course, this also means they can contain THC. 

Full spectrum CBD is attractive to some consumers and producers due to what some brands call the “entourage effect.” This is basically the claim that all of the components of hemp interact synergistically to provide more benefits than the pure isolate. 

Broad Spectrum

Broad spectrum CBD is identical to full spectrum but has all THC removed. This makes it a great option for people wanting the other beneficial compounds in hemp, minus the effects of THC. 

Nano CBD

Nano CBD, or nano “amplified” CBD, is CBD isolate molecules that have been shrunken in order to increase absorption. Through this process, more CBD can not only enter your cells, but it also makes it easier for molecules to cross the blood-brain barrier, which could result in improved results and benefits. 

Nano CBD is also water-soluble, while “regular” CBD is fat-soluble. Since the body is 95 percent water, researchers believe nano CBD may be able to have more widespread effects. 

Researchers also believe most of the CBD products in the future will be made with nano CBD simply due to the increased absorption. 

Where to Buy Hemp Oil and Other Hemp Products

There is no lack of access to both CBD hemp products and hemp seed oils. In fact, you may have already come across CBD-infused creams, oils, drinks, moisturizers, and even CBD chocolate at your local health store. You can also get a dose at various cafes that are infusing it into lattes and smoothies.

However, if you’re having trouble finding a product, you can easily go online and find a reputable brand. It’s always recommended to buy through a brand that has been tested for CBD and THC content and purity, instead of ordering obscure brands from sites like Amazon (more on that below). 

Sourcing Is Important

One of the most important things to keep in mind when you start shopping is where the brand’s hemp is sourced from. Now that hemp is becoming more mainstream, many farmers in the U.S. are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. This has lead to manufacturers and brands to start sourcing from outside the U.S. to keep supply rolling and keep costs down.

Unfortunately, this can be risky when it comes to CBD products. Numerous studies show cannabis plants obtained from uncontrolled sources have been contaminated with all sorts of nasties, including mold, bacteria, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and even synthetic cannabinoids (aka, fake CBD and THC). [*] [*]

Many herbicides and pesticides are added to increase yield during the growing phase. And while this may seem like a non-issue, if CBD is being extracted from these plants, any compounds good or bad can end up concentrated into the final product. 

This goes for molds as well, with other studies showing fatal reactions in immunocompromised patients who used medicinal marijuana contaminated with Aspergillosis fungus. [*

Because legal hemp cultivation is so new, testing is lax or even non-existent regarding herbicides used on hemp plants, as well as testing for other chemicals and molds. When we start to consider foreign growing conditions, which could fall below American standards, the idea of sourcing without knowing where the plants are grown and what they’ve been exposed is risky at best.

Another layer of trouble with international-sourced hemp is synthetic cannabinoids. Many American-grown companies are required or voluntarily test their hemp throughout the growing process for levels of “true” THC and CBD so consumers know exactly what they’re getting and they avoid trouble with the FDA. 

Obviously, the best way to avoid any obscure hemp products is to look on the labels or product website to see where it was grown, along with the COA, or Certificate of Analysis. Also, be sure to look for testing methods done by the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), or the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). These are industry-respected and recognized so you have another layer of validity and avoid potentially harmful toxins.   

Even though research and laws on hemp and CBD are still in flux, we’ve finally been able to make quite a bit of progress on learning the intricacies of this controversial yet beneficial plant. For now, your best strategy when it comes to trying hemp is to stay educated, ask questions, and read labels thoroughly. 

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