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What are Hemp, CBD, and Extracts?

Cannabis vs. Marijuana vs. Hemp

Cannabis is the shortened form of “Cannabis sativa L.”, a species of the Cannabaceae plant family. Both marijuana and hemp are strains of cannabis (and there are many strains within the groups considered to be marijuana and hemp). The defining difference between marijuana and hemp is the amount of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (∆9-THC, usually shortened to THC) found in the plant. ∆9-THC is the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana its ability to make the user high.

In the United States, the federal government has defined hemp as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis”¹. Yes, that is quite the mouthful! The important part of this definition is the limit on the amount of ∆9-THC that can be present if a strain of cannabis is to be considered hemp.

Dried Bud from Hemp Strain Sour Space Candy

Why did the government pick such a low level of ∆9-THC to define hemp? Quite simply, this level of ∆9-THC is at such low concentrations that it cannot create a psychoactive effect (it won’t get you “high”). Currently, there are no strains of the cannabis plant that are completely free of ∆9-THC.

Where does CBD enter the picture?

You can’t talk about CBD (cannabidiol) without talking about its predecessor, CBDa (cannabidiolic acid). The cannabis plant does not produce CBD directly. It creates CBDa (the same is true of ∆9-THC and ∆9-THCa). As CBDa degrades, the acidic carboxyl group is stripped away to create CBD. This occurs slowly over time at room temperature with exposure to light. It can also happen very quickly when CBDa is exposed to higher temperatures (> 240˚ F). This transformation is called decarboxylation.

CBDa is just one of over 100 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant; however, it is the predominant cannabinoid in most hemp strains today. "Phyto" just means "plant" and is usually dropped in favor of saying just cannabinoids. There is a lot of work being conducted today on creating hemp strains that have higher concentrations of other cannabinoids. There are several CBG (cannabigerol) rich strains already available.

The industry’s habit of using "CBD" to describe just about every retail product has caused a lot of confusion. In fact, the FDA has written many warning letters to companies that sell “CBD products”. The reason is that a company named Greenwich Biosciences conducted the studies necessary to show FDA that CBD isolate (isolate means pure – no other cannabinoids or terpenes or anything else) is effective at fighting seizures. FDA approved CBD isolate as a drug ingredient (the drug is called Epidiolex²). Since CBD isolate was approved as a drug ingredient, the laws that FDA enforces say it cannot be used in dietary supplements or foods.

Many people have complained about Greenwich Biosciences (and FDA) because FDA approved CBD isolate as a drug ingredient (this happened before the 2018 Farm Bill was approved). While it would have made life easier for the hemp industry if this had not happened, I believe Greenwich Biosciences did everything correctly. They spent the time and money to show CBD’s effectiveness in fighting seizures and deserved to have their New Drug Application (NDA) approved. Congratulations Greenwich Biosciences!

Yes, the argument does exist that hemp has been around for thousands of years and its cannabinoids have been used for centuries to treat everything from chronic pain to anxiety to seizures. At the time Greenwich Biosciences performed its studies and had its NDA approved, hemp was considered a controlled substance. The company took the only path available to them to be able to make a CBD isolate product available to the public.

FDA has stated that natural hemp extracts and distillates can be used in dietary supplements and foods. So, if a product is formulated to contain 1000mg of naturally occurring CBD from a hemp extract or distillate, FDA (so far at least) has left that product alone. Some companies have gone so far as to remove “CBD” from all their product labeling. Instead, they will say something like “1200mg Full-Spectrum Hemp Extract” or “1200mg of Hemp Oil” (read the label if it says the latter – make sure it’s a hemp extract-based product and not hemp seed oil based). Not only does this ensure they will steer clear of problems with FDA, but it also allows them to sell products on large established web sites (like which have very strong guidelines as to what is allowed.

So, what is the difference between CBD oil, hemp oil, hemp seed oil, and hemp extract?

Let’s take the easiest first. Hemp seed oil is the oil that is obtained from compressing hemp seeds (other extraction processes can also be used to remove the oil from seeds). It has virtually no cannabinoids of any type. It is used much the same way you would use any vegetable or seed oil. Some unscrupulous companies have tried to label products containing hemp seed oil to make them seem to contain hemp extract. Please be careful when buying.

Hemp extract is the material that is removed from the hemp plant that contains all the cannabinoids and terpenes. Full-Spectrum Hemp Extract (or crude) is the unrefined version. Distillate is the refined version. Refined just means that most other plant materials that existed in the crude version are removed so that a more concentrated version of cannabinoids remains. Distillate is available with or without terpenes present.

(This is the simplified definition of a hemp extract. A future blog will dive deeper into this topic)

Dried Hemp Biomass Ready for Extraction

Hemp oil can be used to refer to an extract from the plant's aerial parts (the parts exposed to air - stems, leaves, buds - this is where the vast majority of the cannabinoids reside), an extract from the seeds of the plant, or hemp seed oil. Ascent Naturals does not process hemp seed at all. We process hemp biomass (those aerial parts of the plant) to create very cannabinoid-rich extracts. Please make sure you understand exactly what you might be purchasing.

CBD is crystalline in its natural state (remember, I am being as technically accurate as possible, so CBD means CBD isolate). How can it also be an oil? Usually, when someone says CBD oil, they mean some form of hemp extract. This term can also mean CBD isolate that has been mixed with other oils so that it does not re-crystallize. You really must be sure you understand what is being discussed. Asked questions until you are certain. Ask for, and review, the Certificates of Analysis (COAs).

(We will talk about how to read a COA in a later post.)

That is the high-level overview of hemp, CBD, and extracts. It would be great if everyone used the same terminology and meant the same thing when using that terminology. That isn’t what exists in the hemp industry or marketplace today. I hope this post helps to begin to clear things up. One thing to take away from this post is to thoroughly evaluate the products you are considering for purchase and ask as many questions as possible to ensure you are getting exactly what you want.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about us. We hope you will come back for more.

Stay safe and healthy,

Marty Ford

Co-Founder and CEO, Ascent Naturals


1. “Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018”, Subtitle G—Hemp Production, SEC. 297A. DEFINITIONS, 1. HEMP, page 419.

2. For more information on Epidiolex, please check out their website:

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