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Media release: New study finds cannabis labelling is misleading and doesn’t accurately reflect a plant’s chemical composition

Posted by Communications and Marketing on October 14, 2021 in News

Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 (Truro, N.S.) Cannabis labelling is often misleading and would benefit from a more scientific approach when it comes to marketing the product, according to new research by Dalhousie University, Wageningen University & Research and Bedrocan International, a medicinal cannabis company based in the Netherlands.

The terms indica and sativa are often applied to cannabis and are widely believed to be associated with distinct aromas and psychoactive effects. By analyzing the genetic and chemical makeups of hundreds of cannabis samples, the researchers demonstrated these labels are poor predictors of a sample’s genetics and chemistry.

The research team’s findings are described in a scientific paper to be published Oct. 14, 2021, in the journal Nature Plants.

“Breeders label their cannabis strains using the terms indica and sativa. Retailers then rely on these labels to market their products, and consumers believe these labels are meaningful. But there is now broad scientific consensus that the current use of indica and sativa is misleading,” said Dr. Sean Myles, associate professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University and lead author of the study. “These labels are simply not reliable indicators of a plant’s genetic or chemical composition.”

The research team also determined the creative names given to cannabis strains, like Lemon Haze and OG Kush, are poor indicators of a strain’s chemistry and genetics. They found pairs of strains with the same name are often just as different genetically and chemically as pairs of strains with different names.

“If Pinot Noir appears on a bottle of wine, a consumer can be confident the wine is made from Pinot Noir grapes. Unfortunately, cannabis consumers cannot have this confidence - labels and strain names do a poor job of informing consumers about what they are consuming,” said Dr. Myles.

Cannabis' faulty labelling system likely arose at least in part due to its long history as an illegal substance, leading to a lack of information on plant pedigrees and no regulated naming conventions.

“Cannabis is unlike other valuable crops in that its naming conventions are highly unreliable. For patients consuming cannabis as medicine, this is particularly concerning,” said co-author Dr. Robin van Velzen, a lecturer at Wageningen University & Research and a plant scientist at Bedrocan International. “There is now broad scientific consensus that an evidence-based naming convention is required for the cannabis industry.”

While the researchers demonstrated contemporary cannabis labelling poorly describes the genetics and chemistry of samples overall, they did find a weak signal in the data suggesting the sativa/indica distinction may be driven by a small number of aromatic compounds called terpenes.

Cannabis strains labelled as sativa had higher concentrations of terpenes that have tea-like and fruity aromas, while indica samples generally had higher concentrations of terpenes that smell earthy. This distinction in aroma between sativa and indica is consistent with reports by recreational users.

To explore this further, the researchers combined their chemical information with genomic data and identified a small number of regions in the cannabis genome that likely contribute to the earthy aroma associated with the ‘indica’ label.

“Breeders and growers may be labeling their cannabis strains rather subjectively based on a small number of aromatic compounds that are under genetic control,” said Dr. Myles. “But overall, our evidence-based approach suggests consumers should not rely on cannabis labels to inform them of what they are consuming.”

Author contact:

Sean Myles
Associate Professor, Faculty of Agriculture
Dalhousie University

Media contact:
Alison Auld
Senior Research Reporter
Communications, Marketing and Creative Services
Dalhousie University


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