CBD Edibles: Investigating Quality, Ingredients, and Effectiveness

EDITOR’S SUMMARY: If you’re considering turning to CBD edibles to reduce stress, lift yourself out of depression, or ease physical pain … and you’re a “health nut,” or at least wanting to gain traction in making healthier lifestyle decisions, you may find yourself “between a rock and a hard place.” If you take to the kitchen, and bake up your own goodies, you’ll have control over your ingredients. But most of the products you’ll find at natural grocery stores and cannabis dispensaries leave little to be desired for. After all, how do you think the manufacturers make the gummies, mints, and “hemp bombs” taste so yummy?

Move over, pot brownies—there’s a new kid on the eat-your-way-to-stress-relief block, and its name is CBD edibles. First isolated from the marijuana plant in 1940, CBD stands for cannabidiol, a “cannabinoid.” It is one of dozens of naturally-occurring compounds in the hemp or cannabis sativa plant, the most common type of cannabis plant used as marijuana. 

But no, CBD does not get you high like smoking a joint, because it has a very low amount (or none) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC),—the mind-altering/body-altering substance. “Weed” on the other hand contains mood-altering THC; hence the “high.” Given this contrast, your experience of ingesting CBD will most definitely be different than if you had whipped out a pipe and taken a hit. 

With that sort of benefit (or drawback, depending on your view), the CBD market has exploded over the past few years. Globally, the demand for CBD products such as oils, lip balms, lotions, coffees, and more is expected to grow from $4.9 billion (2021) to more than $47.2 billion in five years. You may even see your favorite celebrity with his or her own CBD brand.

The reasons for its massive expansion are easy to understand: Its uses, advocates claim, are nearly endless. By interacting with receptors in the central nervous system, and with anti-inflammatory properties, CBD can help with everything from stress relief, pain management, and sleepless nights, to epilepsy, migraines, and even psychosis. Since it’s from a plant, the thinking goes, it’s safer and more “natural” than pharmaceuticals.

“After taking opiate based painkillers for 11 years for chronic lower back pain I found this treatment effective and very liberating from side effects, withdrawal symptoms and general health decline from opiates,” wrote one user on a WebMD review site

A Harvard emergency physician who specializes in medical cannabis, meanwhile, reported a variety of benefits among his patients who used CBD: 

“I have seen tremendous improvements for patients in pain control, stiffness, and increased mobility with cannabis products, including CBD,” said Dr. Jordan Tishler. “Most importantly, I have seen significant improvement in reported quality of life.”

With so many potential benefits, it makes sense if you’re a current or up ‘n coming CBD user, to want a quick, easy way to get CBD into your system. Edibles to the rescue … They are just what their name suggests: ingestible products like honey, gummy candies, jerky, and more, that contain CBD. And they are seemingly everywhere in today’s world, even in pop rocks and cotton candy brands.

But how do you know if what you’re putting into your mouth is not just CBD-delicious, but also high-quality? Are all the ingredients in CBD edibles the same, or are some better than others? And which of the myriad of CBD edibles available on and off shelves today (you can make your own) are going to be the most effective for your body and mental state? Read on to discover how to become a CBD edibles expert—or at least confident in your shopping and eating habits.

Curiously Delectable

A quick primer on some of the potentially-confusing CBD terms used on CBD product labels: 

  • CBD paired with other cannabinoids but no THC (remember, the ingredient that makes you feel high) is called “broad spectrum” CBD.
  • When the CBD holds several naturally-occurring cannabis plant extracts called “terpenes,” alongside other cannabinoids, it’s called “full spectrum.”
  • When it’s just CBD all by itself—no other cannabinoids whatsoever—it’s dubbed CBD isolate.

Each has its devotees, and will affect you differently, so consult with a holistic, integrative practitioner to discuss your specific needs. Before going any further, it’s worth noting that an unchecked amount of CBD edibles can be quite dangerous for children. Given that edibles are often presented in candy form, and that almost no child will fully understand the consequences of CBD ingestion, it makes sense that a kid who finds their parents’ stash of delightful-looking CBD caramels or other candies will just start noshing, assuming it won’t affect them any differently than normal treats.

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, for example, warned parents about the dangers of children and CBD edibles after at least one child had to be hospitalized from ingesting too many. And even if a young one is taking CBD edibles intentionally, under the supervision of a parent for legitimate purposes, “there’s a lot that we still need to know, especially in kids,” says Paul Mitrani, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute

“In regards to treating mental health disorders in children and adolescents, there’s a lack of evidence to support its use.”

That lack of research—on children and adults—stems from the fact that CBD didn’t get kickstarted into mainstream culture until 2018, when, for the first time, a farm bill (Agriculture Improvement Act) in the United States included hemp cannabis plants as being okay. Essentially, the bill’s passage made the cultivation, production, and sale of industrial hemp federally legal and regulated. Yet even now, every state is different when it comes to the legality of CBD. In AVFCA’s home state of California, as to be expected, it’s fully legal (technically, hemp-derived CBD edibles are no-no’s in the Golden State, but this regulation is rarely enforced).

Wild, Wild West

Between the piecemeal legal approach and newness, scientific research on CBD (and its edibles) has just gotten started. What research has been done demonstrates there is truly so much that we simply do not know yet. For instance, a study from the journal, Substance Use & Misuse, “CBD (Cannabidiol) Product Attitudes, Knowledge, and Use Among Young Adults,” found that many users rely on guesswork to determine CBD dosages, with more than 50% of respondents reporting at least one unanticipated side effect. The authors concluded:

“[M]any users are not responsibly using CBD products, many believe CBD products provide health benefits that are not yet scientifically proven, and they are not knowledgeable about legal and regulatory issues. Until CBD use is more thoroughly researched and has more comprehensive regulation, public health professionals should address alternative stress and anxiety treatment methods.”

Those public health officials’ involvement of CBD has been scant, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did approve Epidiolex, a CBD oral solution used to treat severe seizures, in 2018.  A 2023 study out of Johns Hopkins published in JAMA Network Open, meanwhile, found that CBD may enhance the effects of THC in CBD edibles. So if you’re enjoying a cookie with both CBD and THC, the effects will be intensified, and of longer duration.

And what are those effects, both intended or not? One study out of the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology concluded that CBD helped patients terrified of public speaking with their anxiety. Several small studies have shown improved sleep outcomes for people taking CBD. It seems to work quicker than traditional antidepressants at lifting your mood. And CBD may even lessen the awful realities felt from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But even plants have side effects (hemlock, anyone?). In this case, CBD, including edibles, can cause dry mouth, diarrhea, reduced appetite (don’t tell the diet industry!), drowsiness, and fatigue. CBD can also interact with other medications such as blood thinners. In other cases, CBD’s effects are so light that you may not even notice. As in, healthy volunteers for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research who were administered CBD had little to no change in their emotional reaction to unsettling images or words, when compared to a placebo group.

What is unarguable is that sometimes—maybe even often—edibles are not as advertised. In certain cases, this may mean the edible is mislabeled, with more or less CBD than the ingredients listing claims. In 2022, one company found that only one in four CBD edibles actually had the amount of CBD it claimed. Another study in JAMA, “Labeling Accuracy of Cannabidiol Extracts Sold Online,” discovered that significant amounts of CBD products sold on the internet contained varying concentrations of CBD, other than what their labels promised.

Yet in other cases, this “not as advertised” aspect was life-threatening. In February 2023, two people overdosed in Pennsylvania after ingesting locally-purchased CBD edibles, that unbeknownst to them, also contained fentanyl and heroin. So far, these narcotics-laced CBD edibles seem to be an isolated case, but it’s worth watching out for.

Which brings up another caveat: Even if you’re ingesting “clean” CBD edibles with the right amount of CBD baked in, you can unwittingly overdo it. Because the calming and other positive effects of CBD edibles often don’t kick in for an hour or two, it’s easy to overeat them. Edibles are not like a bag of cashews or popcorn—you simply cannot eat as many as your taste buds want with zero, or invisible repercussions. So what to do? If the FDA doesn’t regulate edibles, plus all the aforementioned uncertainty, how do you know what you’re truly getting?

cbd ingredienrts

“My Mama Told Me You Better Shop Around”—Including Edibles

Common sense is generally a good tool to integrate into decision-making. It applies to edibles, too, similar to any of your grocery store or pharmacy shopping. To that end, if you’re browsing for CBD edibles, ensure your product is third-party lab-tested. Going further, it may be wise to only purchase edibles from a business that’s licensed in a state with testing protocols. California is one of those states, requiring that all batches of edibles be tested for proper CBD amounts, among other things.

Secondly, look for clear labeling that lists all cannabinoids involved with the edible. It can’t hurt to research a bit about the company you’re considering purchasing from. Have they been fined in the past for any health violations, for example? Do they have good customer reviews? Are the facilities clean, and/or regulated? From where are their ingredients sourced? Do the heads of the company have good legal and community reputations? Are they transparent about their business and trade practices with their customers? The answers could be telling.

Next, research how your desired product is infused (meaning what sort of CBD is in that gummy or lollipop). Was it just CBD with other cannabinoids, and no THC (aka broad-spectrum)? Or perhaps it was “full-spectrum”—the CBD holds several naturally-occurring cannabis plant extracts such as “terpenes,” and other cannabinoids. Or was it only CBD isolate, with absolutely no other cannabinoids? With your practitioner’s help, you can decide what infusion might work best for your body, mind, and lifestyle. That’s because the cannabinoids, terpenes, and other naturally-occurring elements have an “entourage effect”—they all cascade together, and that determines how your body responds (or doesn’t). And the more you are aware, the better choices you can make for your mental and physical health.

On that note, CBD is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Everybody is different, meaning that edibles will hit you differently than the next person. For some, they work like a miracle; for others, it’s more “meh” than “more, please!” That said, you may need to experiment a bit before finding an edible that works for your specific need(s). Pay attention to which edible does what to you, and in what concentration. 

Quality Matters

It’s extremely important to bring your awareness to the ingredients in your edible: Not only has a small study out of Epilepsia shown that consuming CBD in the presence of dietary fat (ex: avocado or olive oil) could help maximize its absorption, but just because an edible has CBD in it doesn’t make it healthy. It may in fact be full of sugars, pesticides and herbicides, including glyphosate, and other highly-processed substances.

Plenty of CBD edibles contain unhealthy ingredients to the tune of high fructose corn syrup, tapioca syrup, sugar substitutes, and maltodextrin, a preservative and thickener derived from starches, that can spike blood sugar, and has been linked to intestinal inflammation. In addition, edibles are often filled with potential pitfalls such as rancid, industrial seed oils, a plethora of additives, synthetic dyes, and “natural flavors.”

For example: From “10 CBD Oil Ingredients to Watch Out For”:

  • Manufactured citric acid: “While citric acid is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, according to Toxicology Reports, “it is not the naturally occurring citric acid, but the manufactured citric acid (MCA) that is used extensively as a food and beverage additive. Approximately 99% of the world’s production of MCA is carried out using the fungus Aspergillus niger since 1919.” This fungus is actually a known allergen.”
  • Sodium benzoate: “When combined with Vitamin C, sodium benzoate can convert to benzene, a chemical associated with cancer development. Indeed, the FDA explicitly says, “Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause cancer in humans.” While sodium benzoate is technically categorized as GRAS (again, that stands for “generally recognized as safe”), a five-year study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found benzene concentrations in common foods and drinks with over 20 times the maximum contaminant level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
  • Carrageenan: “[A] type of emulsifier, a compound used to stabilize processed foods. Although it’s typically found in dairy products, it can also be found in CBD products now too. Carrageenan may be linked to inflammation and was removed from the National Organics Standards Board approved organic foods list in 2016 according to the Daily Burn. According to MedicineNet, side effects include bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (which can involve diarrhea, bloating, belly pain, or cramps).”

Though there are organic CBD edibles on the market (Edwin’s Edibles, Joy Organics, and Green Gorilla all offer organic options, for starters), even these generally contain cane sugar or other sweeteners. So it’s always smart to read the nutritional and sourcing information carefully for anything that goes in or on your body, and make your choices accordingly. 

It’s a brave new world with CBD edibles, but on the other hand, it’s really just taking what has always been around, and using it in a new way. This “new way,” however, leaves much to be determined. As the authors of a Methods Rep RTI Press study, “Tasty THC: Promises and Challenges of Cannabis Edibles,” concluded:

“The need for additional regulation of edibles is evident given the frequency of cannabis overdoses and accidental pediatric exposures. Such risks can be reduced through standardization of product formulations, adequate quality control measures, and appropriate product labeling. In summary, on the production side, much remains to be done to ensure that edibles provide a consistent dosage. On the labeling side, more should be done to ensure that consumers are better educated on how edibles affect the body and that they are aware of how to use edibles safely to avoid concerns such as unintentional “highs” or “highs” lasting longer than anticipated.” 

cbd health risks

CBD Rookie

Is your mouth watering for a CBD edible, but you’re unsure where to start? Remember to stay at a nibble, not a feast, and check out these tips for direction: First, review your health history with a holistic, integrative healthcare provider. What meds are you currently taking? Are you pregnant? Do you have any medical conditions such as liver or kidney disease, epilepsy, heart issues, or a weakened immune system? These factors can make a difference.

If you get the green light, move at a slow and comfortable pace: 

  • Remember that everyone’s body is different. What affects your best friend’s mood or pain levels may not do the same for you. 
  • Have realistic expectations. CBD, like anything else, is not a miracle cure that works within milliseconds of swallowing. 
  • Keep a journal of when exactly you take an edible, and anything you notice about your body or mood afterward, and at what time. 
  • Keep your edibles in a safe place, out of reach of children and pets. Treat their storage as you would any pharmaceutical or vitamin. 
  • Keep in mind the huge variety of kinds and brands. It may take time to find the one that works for you. 
  • Source edibles with the cleanest ingredients: Be mindful of fillers, additives, and added sugars. 


If you’ve found value in this article, please share it!

To support the research and health education of AVFC editorial, please consider making a donation today. Thank you.