The roadmap for creating food and beverage products is fairly standardized across categories, but Mike Hennesy, director of innovation for Wana Brands, knows venturing into the cannabis space can take product developers on a winding detour.
“It’s not just a raw ingredient,” he says. “It’s a well-thought out and curated product that’s been elevated to give the consumer the experience they’re looking for.”
Hennesy offered insights for creating successful cannabis-infused food and beverage products during the second keynote presentation of Cannabis Products Exchange, held virtually July 30-31. He highlighted all factors developers should consider, from plant genetics to emulsification technologies used to develop stable, bioavailable products.
Hennesy, who has seven years of experience in Colorado’s legal cannabis market, first led Wana’s sales team but now oversees the company’s research and development. He most recently worked on Wana’s line of vape products, as well as Wana Quick Fast-Acting Gummies, which have an onset time of 5 to 15 minutes.
Hennesy says product development calls for consideration of product form and ingredients, including colors and flavors. However, cannabis can’t just be swept under the ingredients umbrella, he says. It has the potential to affect every other element in the product and therefore requires extra attention.
“It doesn’t naturally work in all product forms,” Hennesy says. “You can’t just put it directly into a beverage, for example. It often has unpleasant flavors that can interact with the flavor you’re trying to deliver. It also can cause off colors and variations.”
Developers should also outline the experience they want to offer — when the cannabis takes effect and for how long, how it’ll be absorbed by the body and how to tailor the intended outcome by incorporating multiple cannabinoids and terpenes.
Hennesy notes several factors affect how consumers respond to cannabis, including their individual metabolisms, mindset, tolerance and even what they ate before consuming the product. That can make dialing in doses more difficult.
“There’s really no golden bullet as far as what the right dose is because it’s going to be different for every individual,” he says.
Clear labeling on how to use the cannabis-infused product and adopting a mantra of “starting low and going slow” can help, Hennesy says. Balancing THC with CBD can also temper THC’s negative side effects and encourage the “entourage effect,” the activation of cannabinoids’ cumulative benefits by blending them with cannabis-derived or botanical terpenes.
Understanding the chemical processes that occur when consumers eat or drink a cannabis-infused product is also key. Hennesy says the body directs cannabis oil to the liver, where THC is converted into 11-OH-THC (11-hydroxy-tetrahydrocannabinol), which easily passes through the blood-brain barrier. It’s more potent, but has a longer onset period than cannabis that’s been inhaled.
But before developers can incorporate cannabis into their products, they need to know the plant’s origin, the cannabinoid content it will produce and how it’ll be processed after the flower is harvested.
“You need to be thinking about every step and controlling every step,” he says. “You don’t have to have a vertically-integrated business, but you must understand how your product’s being grown, how it’s then being extracted, what you’re doing to process that extract, what technologies you’ve infused and added into it, and ultimately, what that product form is.”
Identifying plants that will offer desired cannabinoid levels is critical, especially considering the diversity that exists among cannabis species and strains. Hennesy says the cannabis genome has 10 times the variations of the human genome, and researchers have pinpointed five types of cannabis that produce low to high levels of THC and CBD — and one that produces no cannabinoids at all.
Cultivators can control how the plant's genes are expressed through soil medium, irrigation, light, atmosphere, nutrients and fertilizers, Hennesy says. But they also need to watch for “genetic drift,” which can occur through cloning and replicating. Cultivators can end up with totally different cannabis plants after only a few harvests.
“Good growers need to not only be working with cloning and replicating programs but looking into breeding programs that help maintain the genetics that they’re trying to grow,” he says.
Selecting an extraction method that pulls off the desired compounds while meeting expectations for quality is also important. Hennesy described methods such as hydrocarbon (butane), supercritical CO2, ethanol and solventless extraction, which all have varying yields, levels of selectivity and cost.
Hennesy also underscored the need for decarboxylation, which converts THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) to THC by applying heat. This process occurs naturally when vaping or smoking cannabis flower, but if it doesn’t happen before it’s added to a food or beverage, it can result in misdosed products, Hennesy says.
“If this step is forgotten, you will not have a product that works at all,” he says.
And then there are solubility enhancers. Since lipophilic cannabis oil doesn’t easily mix with water, emulsification technologies are needed to create homogenous, stable products. Calling them a “Trojan horse” for cannabinoids, Hennesy says emulsification tools trick the body into letting cannabinoids pass directly into the bloodstream, shortening onset times. There’s also the added benefit of masking any off flavors.
Hennesy concluded by noting innovation around emulsification and infusion will continue to shape the development process for cannabis-infused food and beverages.
“The factors that go into cannabis product development today are going to be completely different in the future,” he says.