Breaking Down the COA: What Each Cannabinoid Is and Why It Matters

February 18, 2020
Category: Hemp

COAs can be confusing. They contain cannabinoid profiles, which tend to show 12-14 different cannabinoids. Each lab shows its results uniquely and may use different terms for the same things. While you probably already know what CBD and THC are, the rest of those little abbreviations can be tricky. This post will help you understand what each cannabinoid is and why it matters so you can decipher your next COA like a champ.

COA - Cannabinoid Profile
COA – Cannabinoid Profile – What do all those abbreviations mean?

What Is the Cannabinoid CBD?

A typical COA will have three CBD variants listed: CBDA, CBDV, and CBD.

CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the best-known cannabinoids (second only to THC). CBD is the compound that’s used in oil, edibles, creams, etc., and it’s one of the factors that the public is looking for when considering smokable flower. If you are growing industrial hemp for the marketplace, CBD percentages are directly correlated to how much the raw material is worth at market.

Close-up of Wife Flower
Cannabinoids are found in the trichomes of the plant.

CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) is the raw CBD form produced by the plant. When heat is applied, CBDA converts to CBD. This process–called decarboxylation–can happen through smoking, cooking, or even under excessive sunlight. When raw flower is either processed in a lab or used as a consumable by the public, CBDA loses its acid compound and converts to CBD.

CBDV (cannabidivarin) has a similar molecular structure to CBD, but it has a shortened side chain due to methane bridges. It is commonly found in cannabis indica L. strains grown outside the United States. Most of the research with CBDV is centered on its effects on seizures.

Sweetened hemp strain
Week five flower of our Sweetened hemp strain

MaxCBD (sometimes called TotalCBD) is the lab result of what the sample would produce in CBD content after decarboxylation has taken place. When CBDA is heated, it loses the CO2 molecule and changes to CBD, which is a smaller molecule, therefore CBDA percentages do not translate directly to the final CBD percentage.

In order to figure out what MaxCBD might look like after processing, labs use one of two methods: high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or gas chromatography (GC).

HPLC does not employ heat at any phase and instead uses a formula to extrapolate an estimate of the decarboxylated percentage of CBD in the sample. Here’s the formula:

MaxCBD = CBD + (CBDA*0.877)

GC actually exposes the sample to high amounts of heat (300° C) and completes the process of decarboxylation, therefore rendering actual percentages on the COA.

What Is the Cannabinoid THC?

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the most well-known cannabinoid in the Milky Way. It’s the compound that produces a psychotropic reaction. Breeders and farmers alike are choosing plants that are high in CBD but low in THC. Just like CBD, THC has multiple compounds listed on a cannabinoid profile: THCA, Delta9THC, Delta8THC, Exo-THC, and THCV.

Delta9THC (Δ9) is what is most commonly called simply THC. Industrial hemp was defined in the farm bill as cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% Delta9THC. It’s important to understand that the raw flower of industrial hemp strains are almost always going to be very low in Delta9THC. This is because the flower holds THCA until heat changes it to Delta9THC.

Citrus hemp strain
As temperatures get hot, THC levels can increase as THCA converts to Delta9.

THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is the precursor to THC. It’s found in the raw plant, and when heated, it invariably loses its CO2 molecule to convert to THC. Think of THCA as potential energy waiting to be released when heated, just like the weight of a roller coaster ready to come down that first big drop. Just as all that potential energy changes to kinetic energy going down the hill, all that THCA will change to THC during the heat of processing.

A lab using Gas Chromatography processes the sample with high heat, which converts all of the THCA to Delta9THC and gives an accurate total. If the lab uses HPLC and does not employ heat, they use this formula to arrive at TotalTHC instead:

TotalTHC = Delta9THC + (THCA*0.877)

Visible Trichomes
Visible trichomes on week five flower of Super CBD

Delta8THC (Δ8 – tetrahydrocannabidol) is atomically related to the Delta9 molecule and has many of the same psychoactive properties, but it is not found in high percentages in cannabis sativa L. and is usually non-detectable in COAs. At this point in time, it appears to not be factored into TotalTHC formulas.

Exo-THC is an impurity that is formed as the plant synthesizes Delta9THC. While used in some pharmaceuticals, Exo-THC is basically non-existent in cannabis sativa L. because of the low levels of natural Delta9.

THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) is to Delta9THC what CBDV is to CBD. THCV is a homologue of THC, meaning that their molecular structures are closely related. (THCV has a propyl side chain instead of a pentyl group on the molecule.) While still psychoactive, it reacts with the brain differently than Delta9THC does. THCV is found primarily in African varieties of cannabis sativa L.

What Is the Cannabinoid CBG?

CBG (cannabigerol) is produced when the natural CBGA of the plant is exposed to heat or light. CBGA is the precursor to CBDA and THCA, so as the plant grows and matures, levels of potential CBG drop as levels of potential CBD and THC rise. In typically high CBD varieties, CBGA will only be present early in the growth cycle and in trace amounts. As the plant begins to produce CBDA, CBGA percentages will go away entirely. This is why, in COAs of early flower development (1-5 weeks), you’ll see small amounts of CBG on the report.

Wife Hemp Strain
Week two flower on The Wife hemp strain

CBG is one of the more expensive cannabinoids on the market. It’s often referred to as the Mother, or Stem-Cell, of Cannabinoids and has enormous therapeutic potential. Certain plants have been bred to continue to produce CBG all the way through flowering. Because the plant never begins to produce CBD, it also tends to be very low in THC. CBG varieties are an excellent way to diversify fields.

The formula for finding TotalCBG is a little different because of the conversion weight. The proper formula is:

TotalCBG = CBG + (CBGA*0.878)

Two Minor Cannabinoids on a COA

CBN (cannabinol), often referred to as a minor cannabinoid, is created as THC ages and will usually be non-detectable in compliant industrial hemp plants. If dried bud sits around exposed to oxygen for long periods of time, THC will break down into CBN. That makes this line of the COA important to those buying biomass or smokable flower, but it’s not very helpful when trying to decide which strain to grow.

CBC (cannabichromene) is another minor cannabinoid that is produced in higher percentages in young plants and tends to decline with maturity. In COAs of young buds, you tend to see CBC and CBG percentages, but unless the plant has been bred to continue producing one or both of those compounds, the percentages will shift to CBD and THC. CBC has been tested as a possible cancer-fighting compound, so as breeders are able to maximize this cannabinoid it’ll be one to watch for.

Super CBD hemp strain
Super CBD hemp strain

So there you have it–the most common cannabinoids reported on a typical Certificate of Analysis. Now you know how to read COAs! With this information, not only will you be able to impress your friends at dinner parties, you’ll be able to make informed decisions as you try to decipher that next COA.

All photos ©Rachel Donahue, North Carolina Farms 2020