Cover Story: Science Project

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Using science to make better cannabis-infused products

By nature, cannabis oil is hydrophobic. In other words, it doesn’t mix with water. And that presents an obvious and difficult challenge for manufacturers that want to create a THC- or CBD-infused beverage without an oil slick on the surface.

“You have to take the starting materials—the oil, isolate or active ingredient—and engineer them in a way so they like the environment they’re in,” said Michael Heller, co-founder and CEO of MJ Wooly, a biotechnology company developing water-compatible solutions for introducing cannabinoids into ingestible products.

Fueled by tremendous interest and watershed investments from beer, liquor and beverage giants, infused product manufacturers are eager to fast-track potent, high-quality cannabis-infused drinks to market.

More often, manufacturers are turning to experts in food and beverage science to do that the right way.

Heller’s company is one of many developing formulations to create shelf-stable, cannabis-infused beverages that deliver rapid onset of the desired effects.

That’s done in a handful of ways, Heller said, though some of the most common are through the use of nanotechnology—science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about one to 100 nanometers.

Other companies use long-chain fatty acid conjugations, a method of creating a chemical compound, and research is even being done to change the chemical structure of cannabis active ingredients—something that would need to be proved safe for consumption before it’s allowed to be used in products, Heller noted.

Here are short profiles of three companies, including MJ Wooly. They offer insights into the methods the three are using to develop formulations for cannabis-infused beverages.

 

MJ Wooly Biotech
MJ Wooly

Headquarters: Oakland, California
Employees: 6
Founded: 2015

MJ Wooly has developed cannabis nanoparticles that dissolve homogenously in liquids and solids, Heller said.

The nanoparticles are tiny cannabis oil droplets coated in polymers that allow them to mix with water. This patent-pending technology improves the function of cannabis by rapidly getting more of its active ingredients into the body, he noted.

Its ability to be used in cannabis-infused chocolates or beverages makes it a versatile solution, too, Heller added.

He called the cannabis nanoparticles a “functional ingredient that helps manufacturers make any product
they want.”

“There are many companies working on this in beverages, but very few are doing this across all ingestible products,” Heller said. “We take the view that cannabis and hemp are medicines. Certainly there’s a recreational market for these products, but there are a large number of people who view marijuana or CBD more as a daily supplement, and they want the most effective treatment they can get.”

 


 

Nanogen Labs

Nanogen Labs

Headquarters: Oakland, California
Employees: 10
Founded: 2018
 

Nanogen Labs uses nanoemulsion technology to create its nanoE liquid water-compatible solutions that can be used in ready-to-drink cannabis-infused beverages.

The tiny oil droplets—ranging from 20 to 100 nanometers—are stabilized by surfactants, which are compounds that lower the surface tension between the oil droplet and the liquid.

One end of the surfactant binds to water; the other binds to oil. That makes it easier for the oil to suspend itself in water rather than separate.

Harold Han, Nanogen’s chief scientific officer, completed an internship with PepsiCo, where he developed emulsion formulas for the beverage and snack giant’s flavored sodas. He also worked for Hercules, California-based Bio-Rad Laboratories, a manufacturer of products for the life science research and clinical diagnostics markets, where he developed emulsions to detect target DNA for diagnostics.

Han said nanoemulsion technology is widely used by large food, beverage and pharmaceutical brands, which makes it easy to adapt for cannabis-infused product manufacturers.

People frequently confuse nanoemulsions and nanoparticles. Nanoparticles have a solid core material, such as titanium dioxide, and it is difficult for the solid core to be absorbed and digested by the body. Consequently, it may stay in the body for a much longer time.

Nanoemulsions, by contrast, have a liquid core and a surfactant layer between two liquids. As long as the liquid core and the surfactant are safe to consume, the final nanoemulsion is also safe to ingest.

Han said breaking down a gram of THC oil into droplets that are 100 nanometers in diameter allows the oil to be more rapidly absorbed into the circulatory system when consumed.

The emulsion formulas are stable, too, he noted. Nanogen boasts that its products won’t separate, and the droplet sizes won’t increase for more than three years, on average. In other words, the emulsion will outlast the drink or the topical in terms of shelf life.

Nanogen creates different emulsion formulas for different applications. This means the emulsion formulas can be clear or cloudy and have little to no taste or retain the unique flavors of cannabinoids.

“What drives us to develop different formulas is to understand how nanoemulsions can play well in different applications,” Han said. “Our formula is like a software because it’s always improving. We don’t believe that one size fits all.”

 


 

Lexaria

Lexaria Bioscience

Headquarters: Kelowna, British Columbia
Employees: 10
Founded: 2004

Lexaria Bioscience has 11 U.S. and international patents for DehydraTECH, a technology that uses a method of combining fatty acids such as oleic acid with an active ingredient—cannabinoids, for this purpose—to create a compound that can be used to infuse cannabis food and beverages.

This is done through a dehydration processing reaction, removing water but also affecting the relationship of the molecules or compounds with each other. The result is a dry powder that can be used in anything from chocolates to beverages to capsules.

Through human tissue studies and human clinical trials, the company has determined the formulation created by combining cannabinoids with fatty acids lends itself to greater shelf stability, bioabsorption and flavor, said Lexaria President John Docherty.

Oleic acid is a naturally occurring and generally colorless and odorless long-chain fatty acid found in various nut and vegetable oils. It is believed to bypass receptors in the oral cavity that detect strong tastes such as bitterness, which can be a characteristic of some cannabis extracts, Docherty noted.

Oleic acid is also able to pass through the intestinal wall and enter the body’s circulatory system lymphatically rather than through the liver. This increases the speed at which the oleic acid—and, in turn, the combined cannabinoids—are absorbed into the bloodstream. That translates into more rapid onset of desired effects, Docherty noted.

The dehydration processing step also allows for excellent shelf stability of dried ingredients of two years and more due to the absence of all water molecules that otherwise can promote microbial growth, according to Docherty.

Lexaria has used its DehydraTECH technology to develop a line of mix-and-serve tea products infused with full-spectrum hemp compounds. It also uses the same technology with nanoemulsified compounds for ready-to-serve or off-the-shelf beverages.