Organic, Vegan, Non-GMO? Applying Nutritional Terms to Cannabis Products

Nutritional terms are something we see every day, so much so that they’ve almost begun blending into the background. Organic, non-GMO, vegan, all-natural, raw, superfood, sustainable, and so on, are words you see and a large percentage of labels on consumable products. We tend to think about food in relation to these terms, but they’re prevalent in the cannabis industry as well. For example, organic weed products can sell for two or three times more than conventional items, but the process of creating organic, non-GMO, vegan weed products is complicated and costly.  

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Common nutritional terms and their meanings  

Let’s start with a few basic terms you may hear when discussing food and other comparable products. The original “organic ideal” was to eat only local, seasonal, sustainable produce, but all these terms have different meanings (although a lot of overlap exists) and sometimes it can be a challenge to incorporate all these components into the final product. The term organic refers to the production of consumable goods without using fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents. Any exceptions are listed in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.  

Local refers to foods grown within a certain radius that are consumed relatively close to where it was produced. The exact range varies from a few miles to about one hundred, depending on the product and local regulations. Seasonal means the food was grown “in season” and eaten when ripe, not imported produce. Sustainable, in the broadest sense, it refers to how well something maintains itself over a longer period of time. In food, it means the produce was grown in a way that does not deplete the earth around it of natural resources.  

Then we have non-GMO, which can get a bit complicated in terms of application. “GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and is an umbrella term used to describe any plant, animal, or other organism whose genetic material has been alerted in some unnatural way. Non-GMO implies the final product does not have any ingredients that were modified in a laboratory, but roughly 70% of products on supermarket shelves are, in fact, GMO.  

Vegan is self-explanatory but for the sake of being thorough, vegan items are made without using any type of animal byproducts or animal testing. The cutoff on what exactly is vegan and what isn’t can vary for some people. For example, some vegans still consume honey while many do not. Same with eggs. Some have certain parameters for when they’ll consume such products. For another example, I have chickens at home, 8 hens, no roosters. So, all the eggs produced by my hens are non-fertilized, not viable, and would go to waste if not consumed by someone.  

Similarly, raw food is completely unprocessed, similar to non-GMO, and “natural” has been deemed by the FDA to mean that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”  

Organic, Non-GMO, vegan cannabis products? 

An upcoming movement within the cannabis industry, #whatsinmyweed focuses on the connection between shopping for cannabis vs shopping for food items. In both the cannabis and food industries, consumers are spending 60% to 109% more on organic, non-GMO, raw, natural, (healthy) options. It makes sense to see this crossover considering both cannabis and food are consumable products, and if we’re promoting cannabis as a substance for wellness, it makes no sense for it to be loaded with pesticides, heavy metals, mold, and other contaminants that are detrimental to human health.  

Longtime cannabis industry operators can vouch for this, stating that craft organic options are selling for more, and at a much higher rate, than bottom shelf strains. This can be seen in the B2B sector as well, with cultivators struggling to sell bottom and mid-shelf flower. The price for that quality, in some markets, has dropped to as low as $100-$200 per pound, and that’s IF a buyer is even found.  

“The organic side is really coming into its own,” said Liz Geisleman, CEO of 710 Spirits, a Denver company that sells organic and conventional solvents to extractors nationwide. “Organic cannabis is coming fast and furious.” 

And it’s not just artisan buds that are fetching those higher prices. Edibles, topicals, and many other product types are switching to healthier alternatives as well. These days, you’re more like to be able to find gummies that are flavored with natural fruit juices rather than artificial flavorings, or sweetened with real cane sugar as opposed to corn syrup. Obviously a gummy, is a snack and not something we can consider a health food, but eliminating bad ingredients, even if it’s only little by little, does still make a difference in the long run.  

“Being organic, it’s a bit of a slower approach,” said David Bernard, vice president for growing operations for The Green Organic Dutchman in Mississauga, Ontario. “But once the systems are in place, you have a really healthy method of producing cannabis, and as the years go by, the margins increase.” 

Production standards  

When it comes to creating organic cannabis products, naturally, it all starts with the way the plant is grown. But with no true production standards in place, and very little in the way of organic certifications, what exactly constitutes “organic cannabis”? It’s important to note that just because cannabis products can’t get a UDSA organic-certified label, business owners can still choose to abide by those standards in their cultivation and production practices. The problem at that point, is trusting whether the companies advertising “organic” products are self-regulating and actually committing to those standards. 

Luckily, there are some exceptions for this lack of oversight. Organic recognition for organic marijuana (more than 0.3% THC) from the USDA is obviously not going to happen until its federally legal, but hemp (less than 0.3% THC) is legal as per the 2018 farm bill, and can in fact, sport the organic label. Additionally, at the state level, we are seeing more of a push for organic standards in cannabis production, as demand continues to grow, and local governments try to thwart the still-thriving black markets.  

Take California, for instance, where the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released information for the new OCal Program, which is meant to establish regulatory framework to create “comparable-to-organic” standards in the cannabis industry. In Maine, the Organic Farmer & Gardener Association has launched a Certified Clean Cannabis Program (MC3) that would offer third-party verification for cannabis companies who claim their products are organic. Georgia (medical), Washington, and Massachusetts are working it implement their own standards and regulations as well.  

Organic extractions 

The next step in the creation of organic cannabis products, beyond flower, is extraction and processing. Certain extraction methods, careless manufacturing, or even using the wrong cleaning agents can ruin a product and strip of its organic label.  

cbd extraction
Photo courtesy of Green Mill Supercritical

Choosing an extraction method is key, and hydrocarbons like butane are out of the question. So that leaves: CO2, organic ethanol, or solventless (such as cold-press extraction); all of which have their ups and downs. If we take solventless extraction, those methods are intrinsically organic, but they’re slow and it’s difficult to scale how much you’re going to get at the end.  

Organic ethanol is another option, but not a very cost-effective one. Organic ethanol can cost anywhere from two to ten times as much conventional ethanol, so that’s not an option for man companies. “It’s not really cost effective at this point to use organic ethanol,” said Smoke Wallin of Vertical Cos., a multistate marijuana operator in Agoura Hills, California, and CEO of its hemp-derived CBD spinoff, Vertical Wellness. “The market is there,” he said. “The future play for processing is going to be significant growth on the organic side.” 

Wallin’s company, and many others, are opting for CO2 extraction simply because it’s the most affordable option that still falls under the umbrella of organic. During CO2 extractions, pressurized carbon dioxide is used to draw out naturally occurring phytocannabinoids and terpenes from raw cannabis flower.  

Final thoughts 

The way it’s looking now, the future of cannabis is in the high-end, artisan-style, organic, non-GMO, natural products. This pattern has already been seen in the food industry. Since the USDA began requiring companies to print nutrition facts on their products, consumers became increasingly conscientious of what they were putting in their bodies; it’s no surprise this mindset eventually spilled over into other industries, like cannabis.

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