Sativa and indica cannabis labels “meaningless” according to joint study
26 Oct 2021 --- Cannabis labeling is misleading and can potentially lead to harmful consequences for consumers, according to a joint study by Wageningen University & Research, Netherlands, and the Canadian Dalhousie University.
The common distinction between sativa and indica, often marketed as the two central cannabis forms, are “usually wrong and misleading,” say the researchers.
Speaking to PackagingInsights, study author Robin van Velzen of Wageningen University says the research findings came as a surprise.
“We already knew from earlier studies there is much overlap between the chemical contents of cannabis samples labeled indica and sativa.”
“Our results clearly show the genetic and chemical diversity of current products cannot be meaningfully classified into two groups. This is probably due to decades of hybrid breeding resulting in a complex cloud of genetic relationships among modern cultivars.”
However, given that these two labels are often associated with heritage, the researchers expected plants with the same label would be genetically more similar to each other than to plants with another label.
“Therefore, finding that these labels are meaningless in terms of overall genetics was surprising,” van Velze says.
Both types found to be genetically indistinct
Researchers analyzed over 100 cannabis samples quantified for terpene and cannabinoid content and genotyped for over 100,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms. This indicates that sativa- and indica-labeled samples were genetically indistinct on a genome-wide scale.
Instead, the results show cannabis labeling was associated with variation in a small number of terpenes whose concentrations are controlled by genetic variation.
“We found significantly different levels of a few of the aromatic compounds called terpenes in cannabis labeled as indica or sativa,” explains van Velden.
“For example, the terpene myrcene tended to be more prominent in indica-labelled cannabis. This suggests specifying terpene levels may be a more appropriate labeling practice, and indeed, some suppliers of medicinal cannabis now provide full details of the cannabinoid and terpene measurements of their products.”
Despite this apparent progress in labeling, van Velden notes it is not yet known if and how these terpenes contribute to therapeutic effects. Myrcene, for example, might be responsible for the sedative effect attributed to Indica-labelled cannabis.
“Alternatively, perhaps producers attach labels to their cannabis products based on the spicy, earthy and musky smell of myrcene. For labels to be truly meaningful, we need a better understanding of the effect of the chemical constituents of cannabis on health,” van Velden asserts.
Consumer complacency elicits healthcare hazards
Despite the understanding of terpenes and their significance becoming more widespread through labeling, van Velzen says it will take time to advance the industry, particularly with legal restrictions in many countries.
“I think people prefer simplicity. A distinction between two archetypes such as indica and sativa is easy to grasp. In addition, these labels have been around for quite some time, and consumers are familiar with them,” he says.
“In our everyday life, we are used to the idea that a product sold under a certain name is always the same. If you buy Coca-Cola on Monday in one place, it is the same as the Coca-Cola you buy on Friday in another place.”
People expect that from all products, also from cannabis, he says. However, the study found cannabis sold under a certain name like “OG Kush” can be chemically and genetically wildly different when bought in other places. “They are simply different products sold under the same name,” van Velzen continues.
However, it is imperative for consumers, particularly patients using cannabis as a treatment, to accurately dose their medicine, he says.
“For patients expecting a certain effect from a certain dose, this can be potentially harmful. They might suffer reduced benefits or unwanted side-effects from their treatment.”
“In the Netherlands, for example, patients can, fortunately, turn to the pharmacy for medicinal cannabis where they can be sure that the product is always the same. However, in many other countries, this is not yet possible.”
Recently, US cannabis packagers came under fire for marketing edible THC products with designs that could appeal to children, leading to serious hospitalizations in some cases.
These concerns has also led to calls for health warnings on all cannabis packaging throughout the US and Canada, where researchers found certain brand imagery encourages use among young people.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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