Better for Me? Full Spectrum CBD or CBD Isolate

Written by Laura Komkov
Scientifically Reviewed by Kyle Hammerick, PhD
August 21, 2019
Fact Checked

Public awareness of CBD has grown exponentially, particularly over the last 9 months or so. With so many stories about CBD, you might have become interested in trying it out for yourself, but the variety of products available can be daunting. One question that keeps popping up is around the differences between CBD isolate and full spectrum hemp.

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The Cannabis plant has a complex structure, containing over 100 known cannabinoids as well as terpenes and flavonoids. Each of these compounds is thought to have benefits when included in products that people can consume or apply. The range of cannabinoids included in a product determines whether the product is considered full spectrum, broad spectrum or isolate.

Quick Reminder: Endocannabinoid System

We all have cannabinoids produced by our own body (endocannabinoids), receptors for those compounds, and enzymes that break down those cannabinoids - together these form the Endocannabinoid System. This network helps us maintain balance, or homeostasis, within systems in our body. The receptors are found throughout our central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, brain, immune system, many of our organs and even our skin. The cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant (like CBD and THC) are cousins of the ones produced by our own bodies and interact extremely well with the receptors in our Endocannabinoid System. They can help meet our body's needs to maintain balance. Learn more about the Endocannabinoid System here.

In order to create a CBD product, the cannabinoids must first be extracted from the plant via methods like ethanol extraction, CO2 extraction, or using other solvents. During the extraction process, additional plant compounds including other cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids are also extracted. The cannabinoids and other phytochemicals that will be present in that extract will differ based on the individual plant strain and solvent used to extract them (i.e. a hemp plant will have no more than 0.3% THC, higher levels of CBD and could contain additional cannabinoids like CBN, CBG, etc. whereas a marijuana plant extract will contain higher levels of THC, lower levels of CBD and additional cannabinoids like CBN, CBG, etc.).

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What is Full Spectrum CBD?

Full spectrum extracts contain a large proportion of the naturally-occurring cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids found in the plant. No process can extract all of the phytochemicals from a plant, but full spectrum usually represents the largest breadth of compounds that can be obtained from the plant using that process. Some believe that keeping the full plant extract profile intact allows for greater therapeutic benefits via interactions of the various plant compounds (this is known as the “entourage effect”). Full spectrum hemp extract is highly sought after by consumers looking for a full plant experience, however, a full spectrum extract is likely to contain small amounts (no more than 0.3%) of THC.

What is Broad Spectrum Hemp Extract?

Broad spectrum hemp extract is a bit of a mix between full spectrum hemp extract and CBD isolate. The intent of a broad spectrum hemp extract is to maintain a majority of the naturally-occurring cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and essential oils of the plant, while removing THC. Generally speaking, there would still be trace amounts of THC present within a broad spectrum hemp extract, although the goal of a broad spectrum is to reduce THC to non-detectable levels.

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What is CBD isolate?

CBD isolate is the purest form of CBD. It is a hemp extract that has been distilled down to such a point that only the CBD compound remains - all other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and essential oils have been removed.

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While some believe that CBD isolate can dampen the therapeutic benefits of CBD because you no longer get the “entourage effect,” CBD isolate is a good option for those who are nervous about consuming products that contain detectable THC. Additionally, if you’re sensitive to the taste of hemp, isolate is flavorless, so it can be mixed into oils, tinctures, foods and drinks without adding any hempy flavor.

Which Type is Best for Me?

There is no one type of CBD that is best for every single person. We all have different Endocannabinoid Systems (similar to how we each have different fingerprints), so there’s not a single ideal mix of cannabinoids that we all can live by. If you’re hesitant about using a product that contains any THC, an isolate might be the best option for you. If you are someone who has found that you benefit from the naturally-occuring blend of plant compounds (or the entourage effect), then look for a full spectrum or broad spectrum extract.

Another piece to consider is flavor/fragrance -- if you truly dislike any sort of “hemp-y” flavor or fragrance, then you’ll likely want to look for products created with isolate or highly distilled hemp extract. The terpenes and flavonoids within the hemp plant create its distinct scent and flavor, so the more of those compounds that are removed, the less flavor and scent the product will have. A CBD isolate product will have no trace of hemp taste or smell.

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The most important thing to keep in mind while choosing a product is that you should ensure its quality. Do not buy a full spectrum, broad spectrum or isolate product if the company you’re buying from is unable to show you proof that the hemp in question was grown in good conditions (aka a CoA, or batch test), proof that the product has been tested to confirm its potency (and if it’s a hemp product, that it has no more than 0.3% THC), and is able to answer any other quality-related questions you might have. If a company cannot provide you with a third party batch test, look elsewhere. Once you’ve confirmed the product quality, give the product you’ve bought a try (ideally for at least one month to truly see if you notice an impact), and if it doesn’t work for you, a different product featuring a different blend of cannabinoids might work better. It takes a bit of experimenting to determine if you respond best to a full/broad spectrum or an isolate.

Not much research exists yet on which type of hemp product works best for specific people or ailments, but hopefully as the industry grows and more freedom exists around research in the cannabis space we will learn more together.

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