Get Ready to Sip on Some CBD

by Zack Ruskin for SFWeekly

The science of 'nanoemulsions,' or why CBD beverages are here to stay.


Care for a tall glass of CBD? While the notion of drinking a cannabinoid may sound unconventional, companies like Coca-Cola are betting big that beverages infused with cannabidiol are the future.

Last fall, Forbes linked Coca-Cola to Canada’s Aurora Cannabis. The soda giant refuted suggestions about a move into cannabis, but many people still suspect it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile AB InBev — the Belgian brewing giant best known as the purveyors of Budweiser — partnered with Tilray (another Canadian company) in December to develop non-alcoholic drinks featuring THC and CBD.

What is the reason for this CBD gold rush unfolding domestically and abroad?

First and foremost, CBD has numerous medicinal benefits. New efficacy research is being published constantly, with findings linking CBD to a reduced risk for diabetes, cancer, and a range of other illnesses and ailments. Some controversy does persist regarding the merits of CBD isolate when compared with its full-spectrum counterpart, but proponents for the latter argue in favor of an “entourage effect,” whereby the presence of other cannabinoids accentuate CBD’s properties.

For Ben Larson, CEO of San Francisco’s Nanogen Labs, the jury is still out.

“It’s all anecdotal at this point,” he says. “There’s not a lot of science saying this combination of cannabinoids or terpenes creates a better result than something else. What we have found is that the vehicle by which it is consumed does matter.”

By “vehicle,” Larson is referring to the method of consumption. Compared to smoking, vaporizing, or ingesting it, the most rapid and efficient delivery system is, in fact, water-soluble CBD. At Larson’s lab, the focus is on nanoemulsion — a process that breaks CBD down into micro-sized clusters.

“With nanoemulsion,” Larson explains, “we are able to reduce the droplet size of the encapsulated oil so that it is better absorbed by the body. It can pass through the membranes of the body instead of going all the way through your digestive tract and getting filtered out by the liver.”

It turns out that last part makes a monumental difference.

When consumed sublingually — that is, under the tongue — liquid CBD oil must be digested and screened by the liver before it hits the bloodstream. According to a 2007 report released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that can mean up to 96 percent of CBD is flushed out of us before it even has a chance to take effect. Water-soluble CBD solves that problem. When you combine this innovation with CBD’s mainstream appeal as a non-psychoactive alternative to THC, it’s easy to see why it could soon become the star ingredient for a new generation of health drinks.

According to Larson, beverage companies are “always trying to stay on the bleeding edge” of what consumers want. Pay a visit to the nearest corner store and you’ll see this theory in action. There, a thousand brands of soda rub plastic with a new legion of energy drinks and kombucha teas. If CBD-infused drinks represent the next big thing in commodified thirst quenching, there’s always more room on the shelf.

In talking about CBD, it’s important to remember that this cannabinoid can be extracted from both species of cannabis: hemp and marijuana. While marijuana remains criminalized at the federal level, the passage of the 2019 Farm Bill in Congress last December means hemp is now legal across the country. That’s good news for any company eager to dive headfirst into the CBD waters, but not necessarily a win for consumers.    

Until the FDA makes a major overhaul in the way they regulate and inspect CBD, uncertainty surrounds any product with CBD as an ingredient. In fact, there’s even a chance that the tincture or supplement you just bought at Whole Foods doesn’t actually contain any CBD at all.

“We actually took it upon ourselves to send a bunch of ‘CBD’ products to a lab and have them tested,” Larson says. “Some of them came back with literally zero percent CBD.”

What we need, as Larson sees it, is more regulation when it comes to CBD.

For once, it might actually behoove the large corporations that gladly peddle cigarettes and alcohol to finance a public-service initiative aimed at telling the truth about their newest product. Conversely, they could choose to obfuscate matters — and risk blemishing the public’s perception of CBD in the process.

As business behemoths like Coca-Cola plot their next moves, the time has arrived to precisely define what qualifies as CBD.