Five years ago, few consumers or food producers had ever heard of cannabidiol (CBD), unless they also happened to be cannabis afficionados or medical cannabis consumers. Yet in the past three years, since hemp-based CBD became legal across all 50 U.S. states and cannabis was legalized federally in Canada, consumers had little time to learn about CBD before it was all around them. Due both to its clinically proven effects (which include anti-seizure and anti-inflammatory properties) and to aggressive marketing by CBD manufacturers, the cannabinoid has become known as a wellness buzz molecule, available everywhere from pharmacies to vegan smoothie shops to gas stations. Yet, the cannabis plant—which refers both to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) hemp and higher-THC cultivars for medical or recreational use—has far more cannabinoids than the upstart CBD and best-known THC. The plant may produce as many as 110 individual cannabinoids, along with other potentially therapeutic compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids.
Since state-level legalization began in Colorado in 2015, researchers have been rushing to catch up on the 100 years of research that cannabis prohibition prevented them from conducting. As the cannabis industry has watched CBD’s rapid ascent toward multi-billion-dollar annual sales, everyone has been trying to determine which cannabinoids could be central to the next wellness bonanza. The two rare cannabinoids that infused-foods producers and consumers are likeliest to encounter today, outside of THC and CBD, are cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN).
“There are already various products on the market that have CBN [and CBG] present in various doses,” says independent cannabinoid researcher Winston Peki, who operates cannabis research-and-review site herbonaut.com. “Most of these products are a combination of CBD and CBN and are marketed as products for sleep [or] stress relief—not that different than CBD products, which are marketed for the same.”
For CBG in particular, it’s important for people to hear that no one is experienced with high concentrations of CBG because, historically, it hasn’t existed.—Kent Vrana, PhD
Unlike THC and CBD, which have usually been noticeably a part of cannabis as it has been consumed for millennia, CBG and CBN have, until the last few years, occurred only in trace amounts in the cannabis plant. CBG occurs as a precursor cannabinoid, which the plant produces and immediately turns into THC and CBD, leaving little or no CBG behind. CBN is different in that it occurs in trace amounts in fresh cannabis but can also occur as the product of exposing THC to sunlight or ultraviolet light.
“CBG and CBN usually occur in much smaller concentrations in modern cannabis that is used medicinally or used to manufacture cannabis products,” says Scott Churchill, VP of scientific development for Framingham, Mass.-based cannabis testing firm MCR Labs.
The fact that CBG and CBN are so naturally rare makes them significantly more expensive to manufacture than “native” cannabinoids THC and CBD, says Bryan Quoc Le, PhD, an independent food scientist and cannabis researcher in Washington. “We’re still learning more about them,” he says. “We are still uncertain of their safety profiles in humans, and more research is needed to uncover potential side effects from long-term consumption. But as researchers begin to unravel the potential benefits of rare cannabinoids, as well as develop technologies to manufacture them at lower cost, we may be seeing a higher prevalence of them in cannabis-infused foods down the road.”
The Research into Rare Cannabinoids
Dr. Le also stresses that cannabinoids are chronically understudied, and, given what we’ve learned so far about the therapeutic potential of CBD and THC, “rare cannabinoids are a potential gold mine of new pharmaceuticals, but we are still just learning how to produce them at the scale needed to do adequate clinical research on them.”