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What is the difference between CBD and Cannabinoids?

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

There exists a lot of confusion in the marketplace over the acronym CBD. Enter “CBD oil” in the search bar of any search engine and you’ll find the term is used to describe full spectrum hemp extract (crude), hemp distillate (refined extract), Zero-THC free versions of each, tincture oils, isolate, CBD isolate reconstituted in terpenes and other oils, gummies, candies, chocolates… It’s really crazy when the actual definition of “CBD” is simple.

CBD stands for cannabidiol. Cannabidiol is just one of over 65 cannabinoids found in the hemp plant (and its cousin in the cannabis family, marijuana). Cannabis produces a series of cannabinoid acids as it matures. These acids (denoted by an “A” at the end of an acronym, like CBDA or ∆9-THCA) breakdown over time and/or by being exposed to heat. The result is the cannabinoid acronyms with which we are all familiar – CBD, ∆9-THC, CBC, CBG, etc.

So why is CBD seemingly used to describe everything containing hemp byproducts? In two words, human nature. But, we also have to dig a little deeper. Traditionally, CBD is the predominant cannabinoid found in hemp. This is changing as plant geneticists work to crossbreed different hemp strains to develop new strains that have other dominant cannabinoids, like cannabigerol (CBG). If you consider a “typical” breakdown of cannabinoids found in a hemp plant, CBDA and CBD would make up between 60% - 80% of all cannabinoids. In a pie chart, that would look something like this.


1. When a cannabinoid acid (like CBDA) breaks down to its non-acidic cousin (like CBD), it losses a carboxyl group. That process is called decarboxylation. For any chemistry geeks out there (I know there has to be at least one of you), to calculate the total potential of any cannabinoid, like CBD, after decarboxylation, use the following formula: Total CBD Potential = Amount CBD + 0.877 x (Amount CBDA)

2. Notice that cannabinoid acids exist in much greater quantities than their non-acidic cousins at the plant stage.

3. The “THC Group” of cannabinoids is very small in hemp. By federal definition, the total THC content of a hemp plant must be below 0.3% on a dry weight basis. The example above comes in at about 0.15%.

4. We have another post on the benefits of the various major cannabinoids. Check it out here.

Now back to human nature. Since CBD dominates the cannabinoids in most hemp strains, most early research was performed on this cannabinoid. In fact, The FDA approved a New Drug Application (NDA) for Epidiolex™. Epidiolex™ is a drug developed to control seizures in children. Its primary ingredient is CBD (in its pure isolated form).

That success, and the fact that CBD is the predominant cannabinoid in most hemp strains, has led to its use as a short cut for describing everything that contains hemp and its extracts or isolates. Human beings love to simplify things and they really love their acronyms! This is where you, as a consumer, need to do your research to ensure you are getting exactly what you want in the products you buy.

Consider ingestible hemp-based products like tinctures and gummies. They can be made using any of the following hemp byproducts.

  • Full Spectrum Hemp Extract (Crude) – This contains all the cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, sugars, and starches that were removed from the hemp plant during the extraction process. In its natural state, at room temperature, it is a dark, highly viscous, oil (think extra-thick molasses).

  • “Full Spectrum” Hemp Distillate – This is the refined version of Full Spectrum Hemp Extract. Through the distillation process, everything is separated and removed from the extract, leaving just the cannabinoids. Depending on the way the extract was processed, the terpenes may have also been saved to be added back into the distillate after processing. Adding the terpenes provides a stronger, more earthy, flavor and aroma in the distillate. Distillates, at room temperature, are a light-yellow tan to a medium reddish tan color and are also highly viscous.

  • “Broad Spectrum” Hemp Distillate – This is hemp distillate that has been processed to remove the small amounts of THC that came from the hemp plant (remember hemp has less than 0.3% total THC potential). The other cannabinoids remain.

  • CBD Isolate – CBD isolate is the pure form of CBD. There are no other cannabinoids or other compounds present. CBD isolate is a white powder in its natural form.

  • Hemp Seed Oil – While a healthy source of Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega 9 fatty acids, hemp seed oil contains no cannabinoids.

  • Hemp Seed Extract = Hemp Seed Oil. No cannabinoids.

  • Hemp protein powder – A great source of protein, but no cannabinoids.

Notice the last three hemp byproducts on the list. They contain no cannabinoids. The vast majority of cannabinoids are found in the buds (or flower) of the hemp plant. There are some in the leaves and stalk, but at much lower concentrations. The hemp seed does not contain cannabinoids. Be careful when buying hemp products. Make sure you read the label. Outlandish claims like “potencies” of “240,000mg Hemp Oil”, “350,000 mcg Hemp Oil” (notice the units – micrograms), or 985,000 (with no units shown or other description - 985,000 of what?) are just that, outlandish. All of these examples are straight fromthe first page of listings when I typed "CBD oil" into Amazon. Any hemp product claiming hundreds of thousands of milligrams of “hemp extract” or “hemp oil” is made using hemp seed oil. You will not get any cannabinoids in these products.

If you are looking for products that contain cannabinoids, including CBD, you need to find products that are made using true hemp extracts or distillates. That means hemp extracts and distillates made from the bud and leaves of the plant, not the seeds! One quick way to ensure this is to check the supplement facts panel. Both panels below are from 1500mg tinctures made using true hemp extracts (not hemp seed oil) and they contain cannabinoids.

The facts panel on the left was formulated to have a specific potency of total cannabinoids per serving size. The one on the right was formulated to have a specific potency of CBD. Both were made using full spectrum hemp distillates (not hemp seed oil). If a facts panel lists “Hemp Extract” or “Hemp Oil” instead of cannabinoids or CBD, you will have to dig further to make sure the extract isn’t just pressed hemp seed oil.

Upstate Alchemy uses full spectrum extracts and distillates extracted from hemp flower and leaves in its products. The only exceptions are our upcoming THC-Free versions which are made using broad-spectrum hemp distillates. Why remove all the cannabinoids except CBD when each of the cannabinoids has its own benefit(s) (see our post on the benefits provided by each of the cannabinoids). Using full-spectrum products allows the body to take advantage of "The Entourage Effect". This is the heightened effect of all the cannabinoids working together, synergistically, to provide the most benefit possible for you!

If you still have questions, please leave a comment, or contact us. We are happy to help!

Stay safe and healthy!

Marty Ford


Upstate Alchemy

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