Cannabis Edibles: How the Pharmacology Informs Safety and User Experience

Efforts to legalize cannabis across the U.S. and its legalization in Canada have spurred interest and growth in the cannabis value chain.  It is complicated to understand cannabis as a food ingredient. It is complex and dynamic to operate in the space.  There are agricultural challenges related to managing ingredient characteristics – flavor, aftertaste, and physiochemical attributes, And there are sweeping social and regulatory challenges.

Recently, I led an IFT short course on the pharmacology of cannabis edibles. The audience represented both food and ingredient companies, from start-ups to large, established and familiar brands. And there were a number of participants who didn’t understand the science behind cannabis edibles. Nor did they seem to understand the potential effects edibles can produce.  First and foremost, in the interest of consumer safety, the industry must understand health claims related to cannabis. In addition, the industry must also understand the research around this ingredient, and our body’s own endocannabinoid system – the system that keeps our brain and body in balance and healthy.


Lawrence Blume speaking at conference

Three Important Principles Related to the Pharmacology of Cannabis

Why is it important to understand the science of cannabis?

Great question.

Simple answer.

The science behind cannabinoids ties directly into product development, safety, company risk, consumer ethics, and end-user experience. The science of cannabis edibles is complex and lacks controlled studies, which is partially due to regulations preventing the testing and use of cannabinoids without a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license.

If I had to narrow down the science that food companies must understand as they consider cannabis, hemp and cannabinoids, I’d choose these three principles as most important.


Three Principles Food Companies Must Understand Related to Cannabis

First, consider the route of administration, or how the ingredient gets into the body.

This is the most important of the three because the bioavailability – the proportion of the compound that enters the bloodstream – and timing are quite different depending on the formulation. Let me provide an example. If I’m a food scientist and I am thinking about targeting the health/wellness market, I’m trying to decide what kind of product to develop for that segment. I need to know that bioavailability and timing will be very different in a granola bar, a tincture, a drink or a product that is smoked.

The second important principle is physiological distribution, or where the compound goes to produce its effects once ingested.

Once in the body, these compounds target our internal endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is involved in maintaining the homeostasis of some very important processes – appetite, pain sensation, mood, and memory for example.

One unique and remarkable capability of the endocannabinoid system is that it serves as the brakes to fine-tune and control activity in the brain and ultimately throughout the body. As I previously mentioned, this internal system is critically important in the maintenance and fine control of key physiological functions, many of which we as scientists are still trying to understand. As such, we lack a clear understanding of the potential long-term health and safety effects of cannabis-based edibles.

And third, companies need to know how cannabis edibles, specifically cannabinoids, are metabolized and excreted by the body.

Delivery of cannabis compounds through the gastrointestinal tract results in a great percentage (~75-90 percent) of these compounds being extensively metabolized – gotten rid of or broken down – in the liver before they exert their effects within the body.

What scientists are learning about the metabolism of these compounds is that several of the well-known cannabis and hemp plant extracts are processed by the same enzymatic-based system that processes about 60 percent of the drugs – over the counter or prescription – on the market right now. This information is vital to food, beverage and ingredient companies because it suggests that some of the extracts may prevent liver enzymes from metabolizing other medications.

As a result, pharmaceuticals might build up in the bloodstream over time and become toxic. The implications are clear, and from a product development and safety standpoint, this information can be used to inform label warnings and potential safety considerations for end-users.


Do you need to understand the challenges of CBD?

We can help.

The issue of cannabis as a food ingredient and supplement is complicated. RTI Innovation Advisors can help you understand the science and the safety surrounding this compound.

For over 40 years, RTI International has been exploring the risks and benefits of cannabis and contributing to the national conversation.

  • We have researched the increasing use of cannabis, the potential risks and benefits of cannabis edibles, and the changing perceptions of cannabis.
  • We provide well-characterized chemicals and dosage formulations for preclinical testing and clinical trials.

Policymakers, health officials, and commercial clients have relied on our objective and multidisciplinary approach—one that integrates expertise across the political, regulatory, social, and laboratory sciences.  Our expertise in cannabis-related research makes us an ideal partner for food companies that need to understand the challenges of the compound.

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About the authors

Susan Mayer is our technical food industry leader, with great problem-solving, strategic, and communication skills. Our clients rely on her experience in product development, product lifecycle management, and public-private food industry partnerships to understand how technology, research, and the right suppliers can create innovation opportunities. How does her work with us benefit food companies? Susan believes that our human-centered design perspective makes all the difference. ‘Product developers always believe they are thinking about the consumer, but our human-centered design approach to considering technology brings an entirely different perspective.’ Susan applies her love of food science to her hobbies; she and her husband formulate and brew beer, much to the delight of their friends and neighbors. Susan has an M.S. in Food Science and a B.S. in Foods from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a Certified Food Scientist.
Lawrence Blume, Ph.D. is passionate about collaborative partnerships that bring innovative solutions to challenging research and development roadblocks. A lead advisor for our food science and biotechnology innovation, Lawrence brings extensive experience leading technology-focused opportunity forecasts in support of competitive advantage, product differentiation, and commercialization strategies for C-level executives at companies ranging from early startups to Fortune 500s. Over the last decade, Dr. Blume has applied his background in cannabis physiology and pharmacology towards novel commercial applications in the medical, CPG, and food and beverage spaces. He received a Ph.D. in Physiology & Pharmacology from Wake Forest School of Medicine and a B.S. in Biology with a minor in Biochemistry from Duquesne University.

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