How to Read a Cannabis Lab Test (COA)

cannanbis certificate of analysis

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You’re new to shopping at dispensaries and you notice that some of your products’ labels have COA information on them. Your product’s COA, or Certificate of Analysis, lists a variety of cannabinoids that you’re not familiar with. You try reading through the information, but you’re a tad overwhelmed. You think to yourself, “What is cannabigerol or cannabidiol?” 

If you’re a consumer, learning how to accurately read a cannabis COA will help you make informed decisions regarding which cannabis products are safe and ideal for you. Since cannabis is an agricultural product, COA testing for contaminants is essential to determine product safety and any variance between batches. Furthermore, science is beginning to understand that cannabis is way more nuanced than its THC percentages, meaning that educating yourself on its many plant compounds, or phytochemicals, will help you find the best products for your personal needs.

What is a Certificate of Analysis (COA)? 

COA stands for Certificate of Analysis. Simply, a COA is what manufacturers use to verify that the products they are producing conform to universal standards of safety and quality. To create a COA, labs analyze products for an accurate measure of what phytonutrients are present, as well as to ensure safety standards are being met.

Why Cannabis Lab Tests are Important

Testing cannabis products is extremely important for the safety of the consumer at every stage of production. Much like foods and other products meant for human consumption, standards are put in place to make sure that harmful microbes, pesticides, or derivative chemicals are not tainting products. Cannabis and its many compounds are not FDA-approved, meaning exhaustive regulations surrounding cannabis are left up to individual states or manufacturers themselves. Companies that prioritize transparency will share their cannabis COAs with their consumers.

Aside from safety measures, COAs list the most abundant compounds present in any given product. If you are buying whole cannabis flower, for example, by looking at a COA you will see the percentages of each major cannabinoid, such as THC or CBD, as well as the presence of any minor cannabinoids or terpenes. Each of these compounds contribute to the product’s effects in the body. By reading COAs and noting which products work best for you, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions and predict how a product may make you feel before committing to a purchase.

How to Read a COA Test

Take a look at the sample information provided on the COA. There you will find the strain information, in this case, we’re looking at Marshmallow OG 4. 

coa summary section

In the box on the right, we see that this batch was tested for various contaminants to ensure that it is clean and safe for consumption. Primary contaminant tests include:

Microbials: These are microscopic living things that exist everywhere. Some of them are pathogens, such as bacterias, viruses, and fungi responsible for disease.

Mycotoxins: Secondary metabolites found in fungi. Due to their pharmacological uses, some are used to create antibiotics, while others are responsible for disease or even death in humans and animals.

Heavy Metals: Toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium and more. The presence of these metals can cause serious illness in humans and animals.

Pesticides: Chemical used in soil and the growing process which can become contaminants in vegetation like cannabis and hemp.

A page later on in this COA report also has a more in depth look at the various contaminants tested for this product:

coa heavy metals section

The box below shows the panel of cannabinoids present in Marshmallow OG 4. Cannabinoids are phytochemicals present in the cannabis plant that each possess individual properties. Each cannabinoid is listed, as well as their percentage by weight, and their respective mg.

certificate of analysis cannabinoids section

Note: Acidic Precursors

As you look down the list of cannabinoids, you will find the acidic forms (CBDA, CBGA, etc.) of these compounds indicated. For example, the acidic precursor to THC is THCa. When a product like whole flower is decarboxylated, or heated, THCa turns into THC, the cannabinoid responsible for the heady or euphoric effects most commonly associated with the “high” of cannabis. 

We can see in the COA of Marshmallow OG 4 that this batch contains 23.5% THCa. We also see minute amounts of CBDa and CBG/CBGa. From this information, we can make informed assumptions about how this strain may make us feel as some people enjoy the higher THC cannabis, while others enjoy effects felt from lower THC cannabis. 

Also typically included on COAs are tests for the number and amount of terpenes a particular product has. Terpenes can also play a role in the effects a certain product may have, but more information and research is needed in this area to better understand how terpenes impact cannabis effects in combination with cannabinoids and more.

coa terpenes section

If you’re interested in learning more about how to assess cannabis COAs, it would be wise to research individual cannabinoids, as well as terpenes and their associated effects. This may help give you a better idea for which products you may want to try on your next dispensary visit.  

Where to Find a COA Test

Nowadays, many brands are making their cannabis COAs accessible to the public. You can often find COAs on labels, or labels that feature web addresses to a COA or easy, scannable QR codes. Another way to learn more about your chosen product’s testing COA is to speak with your budtender. Budtenders can review the cannabis COA with you and answer any questions you may have pertaining to its result. Budtenders are our greatest resources at our local dispensaries, so always remember to tap into their knowledge base when you’re shopping.

At Bud’s Goods, we prioritize safety and transparency. Speak with any of our budtenders about our product COAs today.

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