As the cannabis market continues to diversify, a new vocabulary has emerged, causing confusion among some consumers. The terms “concentrates,” “extracts,” “distillates,” and “isolates” are often used interchangeably, leading to misunderstandings. However, it’s important to note that the phrase “cannabis concentrate” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses different types of products. Generally, cannabis concentrates are made from the plant’s most resinous parts, such as the flowers, and then processed into a more concentrated form.
There are two main types of cannabis concentrates: extracts and solvent-free varieties. Extracts are obtained from the plant through chemical means, using a solvent to pull out the active ingredients. While other types of products also have their benefits, cannabis extracts are popular due to their purity, potency, and bioavailability, especially when taken in tincture form. Additionally, evolving production regulations ensure that cannabis extracts are safe and legal.
The history of plant extracts dates back to ancient times, with crude plant oils being used therapeutically since at least 2,600 BCE. Tinctures were among the first types of extracts seen in the modern era, and cannabis tinctures have been used in the Western world since the mid-1800s. While traditional tinctures used passive diffusion to extract the active compounds from cannabis, modern-day methods utilize more direct extraction techniques. The Ebers Papyrus, dating back to 1500 BCE, also mentions cannabis and its medicinal properties. Overall, understanding the nuances of cannabis concentrates is crucial to making informed decisions as a consumer.
Three parts of traditional cannabis extract
Solute – The substance that gets dissolved (cannabis is partially dissolved).
Solvent – The substance that does the dissolving (usually a liquid).
Solution – The final substance. It’s a combination of solute and solvent.
Extracting active ingredients from cannabis
There are two main ways to extract the active ingredients from cannabis: solventless and solvent-based techniques. Solventless methods use machines and low heat to separate the trichomes from the plant material, while solvent-based methods use chemicals to dissolve the trichomes. Each method has pros and cons when it comes to yield and quality.
Extracts: Extracts are solvent-based concentrates, but not all concentrates are extracts.
Concentrate: Concentrates are any concentrated cannabis product made using solvent-based or solventless techniques.
Isolate: Isolates contain a single cannabinoid (typically more than 97% and up to 99.99% single cannabinoid concentration).
Distillate: A semi-isolated cannabinoid oil produced by a distillation process (typically concentrations between 85% and 95% of a single cannabinoid fall into the distillate category.
Broad-spectrum concentrates with the complete lineup of cannabinoids and terpenes (minus the THC).
Full-spectrum concentrates, also known as whole-plant extracts, contain THC, CBD, other cannabinoids (found in lower concentrations) and every other active ingredient in the cannabis plant.
Beyond these product designations, you will find numerous types of extracts, which differ in look, texture, consistency, potency, and purity depending on the quality of the starting material and the extraction processes used.
Common types of plant extracts include:
- Live Resin
Common types of cannabis concentrates include:
- Bubble hash
Over the years, improvements in extraction technology have allowed processors to use gentle methods to extract cannabinoids and preserve most of the plant’s temperature-sensitive, active compounds. Nowadays, cannabis and hemp producers and consumers are looking for more than THC or CBD in their concentrates. Terpene-rich concentrates such as high-terpene full-spectrum extracts (HTFSE) have a large following that continues to grow. Terpenes, the fragrant oils found in the plant, are thought to enhance the health benefits of cannabinoids while minimising their negative side effects.
Solvent-Based Extraction Methods
Solvent-based extraction methods are used to create potent cannabis extracts using closed-loop systems. The solvent passes through the biomass, separates the valuable compounds, and is reused. The resulting crude oil is refined to remove unwanted components, and residual solvent purging is used to preserve the desired compounds. Additional refinement methods may be used to improve the product’s colour and clarity or to remove THC. Analytical testing is essential for monitoring cannabinoid levels and identifying contaminants throughout the supply chain.
CO2 Extraction – (Bassani Medical’s preferred extraction method)
Supercritical CO2 extraction is a method used to isolate cannabinoids from cannabis biomass using a non-toxic and environmentally-friendly solvent. The supercritical CO2 is used to separate THC, CBD, and other desirable compounds from the plant, which is then evaporated from the biomass and recycled for additional extraction runs. Post-processing, such as winterisation and distillation, may be required to remove unwanted compounds. Subcritical CO2 extraction is similar but requires lower pressure and temperature, producing extracts with a more viscous consistency and preserving more of the plant’s fragile oils.
Benefits of CO2 extraction include:
Safe: CO2 is non-flammable and non-toxic, creating a greater consumer appeal for its products.
Accessible: CO2 is readily available at a relatively inexpensive price for the solvent, although the extraction equipment can have higher upfront costs than other methods.
Tunable: Known as a tunable solvent, CO2 can behave differently under different temperature and pressure parameters. Producers can fine-tune these parameters to select the desirable compounds they want to separate carefully. However, CO2 has physical limitations as a solvent and cannot extract a full spectrum of terpenes. So while it can extract terpenes separately from cannabinoids, it only extracts a small range of terpenes. Most are left in the biomass or destroyed in the extraction process.
Alcohol, specifically ethanol, is a common solvent used in cannabis extraction, particularly in the hemp industry. Ethanol can efficiently dissolve cannabinoids and terpenes from cannabis and hemp at high volumes under a range of temperatures. The solvent is washed over the plant material and then removed using evaporator systems to enhance extract purity. Ethanol can bind to water-soluble compounds, producing a crude extract with more undesirables that require post-processing. Ethanol’s boiling point can also reduce terpene concentration in the final product, making it more suitable for producing distillates or isolate products than full-spectrum products. Ethanol extraction is safe and effective and is commonly used as a food preservative. For high-volume hemp extraction, ethanol extraction is a viable option.
Benefits of ethanol extraction include:
Storage: Generally, facilities are allowed to store more ethanol solvent compared to other extraction solvents
Safe: Ethanol has a low risk of toxicity and, as a food-grade solvent, is safe to use in cannabis extraction.
Throughput: In addition to being efficient at removing cannabinoids and terpenes, ethanol has lower electrical and labour costs. It can also be affordable to scale as producers increase their cannabis production rate.