Scientists uncover widespread mislabeling among over-the-counter CBD products

BALTIMORE, Md. — Consumers need to take a closer look at the label on cannabidiol (CBD) products because they might not be telling the whole truth. A new study reveals widespread mislabeling of CBD content occurs for over-the-counter products purchased online and at retail stores.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that some of these nonprescription products still contained THC, the main ingredient in marijuana that causes a “high” feeling. This includes products that claim to be THC-free. The study also revealed some of the products made therapeutic claims not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has only approved one prescription CBD product for use as a treatment for seizures in people with epilepsy. There are two FDA-approved THC products, which treat nausea resulting from chemotherapy and weight loss due to HIV.

“Misleading labels can result in people using poorly regulated and expensive CBD products instead of FDA approved products that are established as safe and effective for a given health condition,” says Dr. Tory Spindle, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a university release.

CBD products are widely available to consumers thanks to the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Under the bill, CBD products that contain less than 0.3 percent of THC are not illegal substances under federal law. However, it has made it difficult for the FDA to address unapproved claims and mislabeling.

“Recent research has shown that people who use CBD products containing even small amounts of THC could potentially test positive for cannabis using a conventional drug test,” notes Spindle.

Half of CBD products containing THC don’t tell customers

The study analyzed 105 CBD topical products purchased online and at brick-and-mortar retail stores in Baltimore, Maryland, between July and August 2020. The products included lotions, creams, and patches. To identify the amount of CBD and THC these products contained, researchers used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to conduct their tests.

Of the 105 tested products, only 89 listed the total amount of CBD in milligrams on their labels. Sixteen of the 89 products contained less CBD than advertised, while 52 contained more CBD than advertised. Only 21 products provided an accurate description for consumers.

Researchers detected THC in 37 of the 105 products however, all were within the legal limit of 0.3 percent. Despite that, four of the 37 claimed to be THC-free, 14 claimed to contain less than 0.3 percent THC, and 19 failed to reference THC on the label as all.

Out of the 105 products, 29 made a therapeutic claim, 15 made a cosmetic or beauty-related claim, and only 49 stated that did not have FDA approval. The other 56 made no reference to the FDA.

The FDA doesn’t back up the claims on over-the-counter CBD labels

“It’s important to note that the FDA has not approved CBD products to treat any of the conditions advertised on the products we tested,” notes Spindle, who is also a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Cannabis Science Laboratory.

Researchers believe better regulation is necessary to ensure CBD products meet established standards for quality assurance so consumers have all the facts.

“The variability in the chemical content and labeling found in our study highlights the need for better regulatory oversight of CBD products to ensure consumer safety,” explains Dr. Ryan Vandrey, the study’s senior author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johnsons Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Researchers add that people should check with their primary care physician before starting any CBD regimen.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.


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