These challenges arise primarily from the fat-soluble nature of cannabinoids, creating a number of problems for beverage manufacturers. For one, because it is fat soluble, cannabinoids when ingested orally need to travel to the liver before being metabolized in a manner that delivers the psychoactive or therapeutic effects. This is the reason the onset time of cannabis beverages and edibles is heavily delayed relative to water-soluble alcohol, and also why the experience is so unpredictable, as absorption is more heavily affected by what the consumer has eaten that day.
The fat-soluble nature of cannabinoids also creates issues around shelf stability. Because fat soluble cannabinoids need to be extracted from the flower of the cannabis plant into lipid-based mediums, beverages producers are left with the age-old problem of trying to mix oil and water when creating cannabis beverages.
Let’s also not forget that the taste of cannabis and cannabinoids do not appeal to many people.
The 'salad dressing effect'
To date, a number of cannabis beverages manufacturers have relied on emulsification and nano-emulsification techniques to combat the 'salad-dressing effect' — oil and water separate — that results from trying to infuse beverages with cannabinoids.
Even though these companies will often refer to its technology as creating water solubility, in truth these products (and any products using emulsification techniques, nano or otherwise) are actually more accurately defined as only 'water compatible.'
While emulsification is well-understood and generally safe process for creating food and beverage products, there are limits to its utility as emulsified drinks are cloudy and have limited shelf stability. Eventually, similar to oil and vinegar salad dressings, the emulsified cannabinoids begin to separate from the beverage and appear as sediment in the solution. Emulsifying cannabinoids also does nothing to address the delayed onset and unpredictability of consuming cannabinoids orally.
Nanoemulsification techniques can help address issues of opaqueness or shelf stability (though it doesn’t change the fundamental issue of being only water compatible as opposed to water soluble). However, many observers and health authorities are starting to question the safety profile of nanotechnologies generally and their appropriateness for recreational cannabis products, specifically.
There is evidence that nanotechnologies may cause brain damage, immune system disruption, toxicity to organs and tissues through bioaccumulation of nano particles, DNA damage and cytotoxicity. In addition, scientists are also investigating the growing concern surrounding nanotechnology’s unknown biodegradability.
While research into the health effects of nanotechnologies continues, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) still expresses concern over the fact that “there remain many unknown details about the interaction of nanoparticles and biological systems.”
Beyond the ethical consideration of exposing people to unknown health risks, there are a number of business reasons why manufacturers of cannabis beverages may wish to reconsider the use of nanotechnologies for cannabis products.
For instance, Allianz Group’s insurance division has stated that the “inherent risks to product recall, food and beverage safety and third-party liability [of nanotechnologies] are enormous.” Similarly, the Centre for International Environmental Law has said that “in the context of uncertain risks, producers should be required to transparently demonstrate the benefits and safety of products containing nanomaterials.”
But hope for creating a cannabis beverage that can compete with alcohol in terms of its quality and predictability, without additional health risks, should not be lost. A new slate of companies built by teams with deep experience in the agricultural and biosciences industries, with scientific rigour and processes at their core, are emerging.
Companies such as Trait Biosciences Inc., as well as Vitality Biopharma Inc., have developed processes to convert fat soluble cannabinoids into water soluble cannabinoids. The processes used by these companies involves advanced knowledge of botanical science and nature to mimic how the body naturally metabolizes cannabinoids through the liver (a process called glycosylation). The advantages of truly water-soluble cannabinoids (as opposed to water compatible cannabinoids that emulsions create) are expected to be many: earlier onset, more predictable experience, shelf stable, non-toxic and better taste to name a few.
So, while it may take faith to believe that Jesus once turned water into wine, those interested in making cannabis beverages should take solace in the fact that science is working to find an appropriate solution to the oil-into-water problem that fat soluble cannabinoids has thrown their way.
About the authors
Dr. Richard Sayre (right) is Trait’s Chief Science Officer. Dr. Sayre has been recognized as one of the world's leading plant researchers and described by the journal Nature as “one of five crop scientists who could change the world.” Prior to joining Trait, Dr. Sayre was a Level 6 scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico. He is the author of over 130 published papers on biotechnology, is the inventor on over 40 patents, and his work has been cited in over 8,700 articles. He has also received over US $100m in grant funding for various projects.
Peter McDonough (left, above) is Trait's director and board member. Peter serves as a management consultant following an extensive career leading international marketing organizations. His 30+ years of brand building experience spans a broad array of consumer industries with senior leadership roles at market leaders such as Diageo, Gillette, Duracell, Black & Decker and Braun. In is most recent corporate role, Peter served as President, Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer for Diageo North America. In his diverse career, Peter has built iconic consumer brands in six different industries and led organizations on three continents. His professional experience includes time spent on the business school faculty at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) as well as advisory roles at the AdCouncil of America and Effies Worldwide. Peter is an alumnus of Cornell University with an MBA from The Wharton School of Business and currently serves on the Boards of Viridian Capital Advisors and Empower Clinics, Inc.