The connection between the worlds of fitness supplements and cannabis might not be immediately evident, but the two industries share one common issue: an almost complete lack of mandatory and universal labeling standards. Cannabis packaging is following the mistakes of the supplement industry to some degree when it comes to labeling, but this also represents an opportunity to establish your brand as a trusted, preferred source.
Inadequate Labels And Consumer Trust
Products intended for bodybuilders and dieters are only very loosely regulated by the FDA, which tends to only step in when there appears to be a serious and medically demonstrable health consequence- for example, the ban on DMAA and recent warning letters sent to companies distributing products containing picamilon. As far as labeling accuracy goes, however, the FDA is almost entirely hands-off. This has been demonstrated by everything from scandals over “protein spiking” to no end of “miracle fat burners” that aren't actually backed by scientific evidence. This problem extends to the world of all-natural herbal remedies, and perhaps is even worse there; independent testing has shown that a variety of these products don't even contain the central herb they advertise.
Cannabis products are also not going to be regulated by the FDA, although they fall into a different set of circumstances. At the federal level, cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance, and there's no substantive indication that is going to change in the near future. States that have legalized cannabis have begun to impose their own labeling standards, but to date they have focused almost exclusively on making cannabis product packaging child-proof and including warnings about possible health outcomes.
Individual state requirements for content labeling accuracy vary greatly. For example, Alaska only requires an estimate of the amount of THC in the product, while at the opposite end Connecticut requires a full list of active ingredients and a profile of terpenes in addition to a unique serial number tied to producer lot and batch numbers.
Accuracy standards are not necessarily any tighter in the states that have legalized for recreational use. Colorado requires a universal THC symbol and a list of ingredients, but not specific amounts. Oregon's laws are only focused on making packages child-resistant. Washington has the most comprehensive standards at present, requiring a list of ingredients, concentration amounts of THC and CBD, and a “best by” date.
Already An Accuracy Problem?
Based on early independent studies, the cannabis industry may already be heading down the road the worst elements of the fitness and herbal supplement industry have chosen to take.
In a study published in The Journal of American Medicine in 2015, researchers took a random sampling of 75 different labeled edibles from dispensaries in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles and tested them in a laboratory. More than 50% of these edibles contained significantly less THC and/or CBD than their labels claimed. Over 60% contained less THC than they claimed to have, while 23% actually had more, leaving only 17% with completely accurate counts.
Producers of cannabis products do face unique logistical challenges that sometimes stymie even the best of intentions. For example, due to federal laws, they're usually limited to using whatever labs happen to be located in the same state. And due to the nature of sourcing, buds from multiple plants are likely to be present in each batch of product, meaning more samples per batch will have to be tested to get a truly accurate picture of the total content. Even so, the cost of full testing is reasonable, particularly for companies that deal in high volume with a particular lab.
Why Accurate Labeling Is Key Going Forward
In the fitness supplement world, professional athletes are the most high-end of customers. Athletes are on very strict diets, carefully counting all the macronutrients and calories they consume. They need to be absolutely certain that they are getting accurate information about what they're putting in their body. They also can't afford to have an amphetamine analogue or other illicit substance slipped into their products, as they are subject to regular drug testing and can end up suspended or even banned from their profession if they aren't careful. They have large training budgets, and they're willing to spend more for a premium product that meets their needs: products that offer an “open label” policy, are verified by an independent laboratory and back up all of their claims with legitimate scientific testing.
The stakes are similarly high for medicinal cannabis users. Cannabis is susceptible to mold and mildew, and can also be infected with bacteria like listeria and E. coli. While these things may represent only a temporary illness and inconvenience for a healthy consumer, they could potentially prove fatal to those with compromised immune systems. These consumers will be carefully scanning cannabis packaging for assurances that it is properly tested, particularly if they have had a bad experience in the past.
High-end recreational customers with the most discretionary income are similarly going to want assurances that they are getting the best product possible for their needs and that the cannabinoid profile does what they expect it to do. Cannabis packaging that boasts independent lab verification of its quality will resonate just as well with this demographic.
Cannabis is still very much an emerging market, and one that's in a particularly unique state of chaos thanks to its legal status at the federal level. We're still far from any established “household name” brands, and existing brands are currently limited to establishing their presence in local markets for the most part. This period represents a golden opportunity for brands to emerge locally as popular trusted providers who offer a premium product, comparable to brands like Myprotein and Garden of Life in the supplement arena, and continue to build on this reputation as legalization efforts advance across the country.
The first high-end household name in cannabis is going to be one that people find dependable, and dependability is reliant on a voluntary high standard of lab testing and labeling.