Contaminated CBD products could lead to anti-doping ban, ESSNA warns

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
©iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Related tags Cbd THC Regulation doping

Athletes using cannabidiol (CBD) products should be prepared for a very real risk they could fail anti-doping tests due to contamination of banned tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), ESSNA has warned.

The European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance has advised athletes to carefully consider the risk of doping if they consume CBD-based products while competing.

The group, which counts major European sports nutrition players like Volac, Myprotein and Holland & Barrett among its membership, added that “even if CBD is not considered a prohibited substance, the risk of traces from other cannabinoids entering athletes’ bodies after using CBD containing products is too high to be ignored.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD as a banned substance in 2018 and raised the legal THC limit from 15 nanograms/millilitre (ng/ml) to 150ng/ml, but CBD use has still led to doping bans because of the presence of trace amounts of THC in products.

In September the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) slapped Colorado-based triathlete Lauren Goss with a 6-month ban​ after THC levels in her blood exceeded the 150ng/ml threshold. She blamed a CBD cream she was using out-of-competition for a ‘musculoskeletal injury.’

ESSNA said “it is difficult to extract CBD from the cannabis plant without any traces of other cannabinoids, such as THC, being found in the final product. Moreover, there are risks of cross contamination in manufacturing facilities if CBD products are produced in such environments.”

Although clinical data backing CBD health benefits is sparse, it has won favour in the sporting world especially to aid muscular recovery, pain relief, improving sleep quality and anti-inflammation.

CBD-THC conversion in the body

Veteran nutritionist and EU food law expert Dr Mark Tallon, managing director of UK firm, Legal Foods, said the issue was even more complex when CBD’s conversion to THC in the body was considered.

“There is conflicting research over this issue despite trade associations and industry stating it does not occur,”​ Dr Tallon told NutraIngredients.

“My guidance at this point for athletes is to avoid CBD as a nutrition supplement. So far the data for benefits in this population is at best anecdotal. Even a certificate of analysis (CoA) does not guarantee zero THC as the analysis is limited on levels of detection and also how relevant the sampling is to the larger batch.”

Despite these issues, the global CBD sector is throwing big money at the sporting world with CBD firms engaging in high-level sponsorships of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), USA Triathlon and World Surf League (WSL) events.

The WSL issued guidance that “athletes who wish to use CBD must ensure that any CBD products they use do not contain any THC.”


Mark Tucker, CEO of UK-based CBD firm TTS Pharma, told NutraIngredients complete CBD-THC separation was possible in the right conditions.

TTS and its partners had developed “validated proprietary techniques for the extraction, separation and manufacturing of cannabinoids,”​ referencing independent analysis conducted by Fera Science that showed CBD products completely free of THC and another banned hemp compound, cannabinol (CBN). The test method was 400 times more sensitive than most employed to test commercially available products.

Tucker added: “R&D in the industry is accelerating in this area and new technologies will be able to more widely achieve new levels of purity to pharmaceutically acceptable standards – simultaneously new testing methods will also advance to ensure compliance.”

In the summer, TTS commissioned independent analysis of 31 CBD products on sale in the UK and found almost half contained banned psychoactive compounds cannabinol (CBN) and/or THC above the EU’s 0.2% legal limit.

No CBD products have as yet been registered with third party testers by such as LGC-owned Informed-Sport​.

Market analysts the Brightfield Group predicts, “​​impending regulatory changes” ​​such as Novel Foods approval will drive Europe’s CBD market (including e-cigarette fluids) from $318m (€285m) last year to $416m (€373m) this year, and jump 400% to $1.7bn (€1.5bn) by 2023. Analyst Cowen Inc projects the global market will be worth $16bn (€14.4bn) by 2025.

The flourishing CBD market in recent years is remarkable given its often uncertain regulatory status in many countries. The European Union is yet to officially approve it in supplement form and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering its position on it.

CBD is a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. In industrial hemp growing, the psychoactive component, THC, is reduced to negligent levels of usually less than 0.2% in the European Union.

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