Thanks to ever-growing acceptance from consumers and lawmakers, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydocannabinol (THC), as well as food and beverage products containing them, are booming in popularity. 

Eleven states have now legalized marijuana recreationally, and 33 allow it for medicinal use. Sales of CBD, now legal in some capacity in 46 states, reached $5.3 billion in 2021, a 15% increase from the year before, and are predicted to hit $26 billion by 2026, according to cannabis research and data firm Brightfield Group. 

And IBIE will feature its first-ever Cannabis Central Pavilion, where attendees can explore the burgeoning world of cannabis-infused foods. 

“I believe the evolution of acceptance of CBD in the past four or five years has really opened people’s minds and hearts around consuming cannabis,” said Lauren Gockley, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Coda Signature in Denver, which offers cannabis-infused chocolate, bath bombs and more. “The presence of CBD and other cannabinoids are only going to increase as the industry matures and more people seek alternatives to conventional prescription medications.”

CBD is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis derived from hemp, unlike THC which provides the high cannabis is known for. The federal government defines cannabis with less than 0.3% THC as hemp and cannabis with more than 0.3% THC as marijuana. 

The 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, commonly known as the Farm Bill, legalized the use of hemp, paving the way for CBD’s widespread production. But because CBD is also an ingredient in the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approved drug Epidiolex, it isn’t allowed in foods, beverages and dietary supplements under federal law. 

This has left the CBD marketplace in a state of limbo that poses challenges for many sellers, some of whom are running into trouble with the FDA. In May, the agency sent warning letters to five companies selling CBD and delta-8 THC products ranging from chocolate, coffee and honey to tinctures and capsules. The warning letters addressed the companies’ unapproved health claims that CBD and delta-8 products help treat various medical conditions or serve other therapeutic purposes, which the FDA has called “egregious” and “over the line.”

“The FDA is very concerned about the growing popularity of delta-8 THC products being sold online and in stores nationwide,” said Janet Woodcock, MD, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA. “These products often include claims that they treat or alleviate the side effects related to a wide variety of diseases or medical disorders, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, nausea and anxiety.”

Delta-8 is a cannabis compound similar to the psychoactive component of marijuana, delta-9, and has intoxicating effects the FDA said may be dangerous to consumers. Delta-8 is made from CBD, meaning the psychoactive drug can be sold in states where marijuana is illegal. 

Drew Hathaway, senior food scientist for Caliper CBD, Commerce City, Colo., said he appreciates the FDA’s consistency in warning companies making claims he agrees are over the top, including that their products can cure cancer or coronavirus (COVID-19). But he’s unhappy with the agency’s overall lack of action and hardline stance against other health claims. 

“They’ve really just left the entire CBD market in a murky, grey area intentionally, and I don’t think that was Congress’ intention when they passed the farm bill,” he said. “I think the challenge for me is that it’s very clear that cannabinoids, whether CBD or THC, can help with some of these medical conditions.”

Ms. Gockley agreed, saying the FDA’s refusal to regulate is preventing further research into the potential benefits of cannabis products. 

“We will continue to exist in a paradox of sorts where the FDA makes ‘egregious’ and ‘over the line’ claims about the inefficacy of cannabinoids without providing the framework for science to prove otherwise,” she said. 

When the Farm Bill passed, many in the CBD industry were hopeful the FDA would soon allow for its widespread use. Four years later, Mr. Hathaway doesn’t believe that day is coming anytime soon. 

“I think there’s a pretty low likelihood that the FDA is going to clear any of this up for CBD, and so I think ironically, the ball is back in Congress’ court,” he said. “And because of the popularity of THC and cannabis, ironically it seems like Congress is more likely to legalize or at least decriminalize them before they do anything to fix the current CBD and delta-8 situation.”

Without FDA regulation or legislation from Congress, the situation can best be described as a Wild West marketplace that poses potential health risks to consumers. Mr. Hathaway said he’s especially concerned about the growing popularity of delta-8. The compound doesn’t occur naturally in hemp and is a man-made chemical reaction, he notes, and if not properly converted from CBD, can contain high levels of solvents and chemicals that are harmful to consumers. Twenty states have restricted or banned its use, and Mr. Hathaway expects that number to grow. 

Because CBD and delta-8 aren’t federally regulated, it’s critical bakers and snack manufacturers entering the space vet their suppliers before buying from them. Caliper CDB, for example, sells flavored and unflavored CBD powders nationwide, regularly testing them to ensure their efficacy. 

“That’s something we generally have gotten really positive feedback on,” Mr. Hathaway said. “Having test results, being transparent, having supply chain mapped out. That’s the key advice for sure.”

CBD and other cannabis products are also a great opportunity for businesses with a well-established e-commerce channel, as most people buy these items online, he continued. 

“On the flip side, if you are doing the vast majority of your sales through traditional retailers, such as grocery stores or convenience chains, a lot of those, especially the large ones, are not willing to let ingestible CBD products on their shelves,” he said. 

While it’s unlikely the murky waters surrounding CBD and delta-8 will clear anytime soon, the cannabis-infused food and drink industry continues to flourish. Bakers who do their homework on these products, vet their suppliers and avoid making troublesome claims can take advantage of its growth.