Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after adding 99 new items (52 health & beauty/topical products, 31 dietary supplements, 16 petcare SKUs) to its existing line of 152 CBD products, Jonathan Lawrence, senior director of grocery & natural living at Fresh Thyme, said “CBD is a hot product, but it’s normalizing.”
He added: “We’re not seeing the huge rapid growth that we’ve seen in the past because we were early pioneers. It’s going to become an everyday product like turmeric or fish oil.
“It’s brought us some new customers into our stores because we’re a trusted store to try new things and we’ve also seen some shifts in buying from our existing customers, so turmeric and sleep products and a few others are slightly down as people will say try CBD instead for say joint pain, but I think things will balance out and we're already starting to see that.
“From a basket building standpoint, has CBD been good for us? Absolutely, average retail on a supplement product was roughly $12 four years ago and today it’s closer to $15 and that has a direct correlation with the price point and the kind of CBD products we’re selling.”
The top questions are: Will it get me high? Will I fail a drug test? How much should I take?
Shoppers are becoming more educated about CBD, although some key questions keep coming up, said Lawrence, who launched Fresh Thyme's CBD set with eight products from CV Sciences, and has since expanded the set to 8-feet.
“The top questions we still get asked are, Will it get me high? Will I fail a drug test if there are minute amounts of THC in my CBD products? And how much should I take? The problem is, there’s no clear answer on dosages, it’s not a like a multivitamin where you take two-a-day. Everyone is different and you have to listen to your body to see what works for you.”
Downers Grove, Illinois-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market – which launched in 2014 and now operates 74 stores throughout the Midwest – combines “the spirit of a weekend farmers market, and the convenience of a neighborhood store.”
Each c.30,000sq ft. store devotes a lot of space to fresh produce, salads, artisanal bakery, hormone-free meat and dairy, seafood, and fresh-prepared products such as pizza, grab & go fresh deli items, bins of natural and organic bulk goods, specialty gluten-free and dairy-free products, and supplements.
The chain first started selling hemp-derived CBD in late 2016, beginning with a handful of products from CV Sciences, and has since expanded to an 8-foot display featuring a locked cabinet of dietary supplements next door to a variety of health & beauty/topical products and petcare items.
‘I’ve been surprised with the potency levels people are looking for’
While there is likely a big market opportunity in functional foods and beverages infused with low doses of CBD marketed on a general wellness platform, Lawrence said Fresh Thyme customers shopping its CBD supplement set were trending towards higher doses and expecting to see discernible results around pain management, stress/anxiety, and better sleep.
“We’ve been surprised with the potency levels some people are looking for; we’re selling high dollar products at upwards of $150-$160 which we didn’t bring in initially, but we had so many requests for them that we said, hey, our customers are looking for these products, let’s bring them in. In terms of formats, gummies are popular because dosing is easier and you can build your dose and see what works for you.
“I think we’ll also see more interest in other cannabinoids as well as CBD, and combinations of cannabinoids with other plants [containing functional ingredients].”
CBD in foods and beverages
Although everyone responds differently to CBD, and some products seem to deliver it more effectively than others such that a little may go further, throwing CBD in anything and everything at low doses may not be a winning strategy, he predicted.
“What happens if 15mg doesn’t do anything for you? For me, personally, for example, for the effects I’m looking for, I need 55-70mg, and if new customers come in and buy a $7 water with CBD and it doesn’t do anything, in their minds, maybe CBD doesn’t ‘work.’”
That said, Fresh Thyme is in talks with multiple players in food and beverage with CBD infused products, and poised to move forward should the FDA provide more clarity on the regulatory path forward, said Lawrence.
“There’s a lot of legwork that has to be done before you launch a product, and that kind of work has already been done at our end. But right now our comfort level with supplements and the FDA is maybe a little bit different with food and the FDA [the FDA does not distinguish between the two when it comes to CBD’s status as an illegal dietary ingredient, but did recently say that it cannot - yet, at least - conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) among qualified experts for its use in human or animal food].
“There’s a lot of exciting innovation in drinks but we’re not carrying [CBD-infused] drinks at this time and for CBD as an ingredient in food, personally I’m excited but as a company we’re waiting and seeing where things go.”
CBD and the regulatory framework
As for the regulatory piece – the FDA has repeatedly stated that CBD is not a legal dietary ingredient in foods, beverages or supplements because it was first investigated as a drug – Fresh Thyme is being guided by state laws, many of which explicitly authorize the sale of hemp-derived CBD products.
In Indiana, for example, Fresh Thyme was one of several retailers raided by state excise police who confiscated CBD products in 2017. The state later passed a law permitting the sale of ingestible hemp-derived low-THC CBD products provided that they met certain strict labeling requirements.
Fresh Thyme has since gone on to adopt similar requirements for all of its CBD products, which are sold in all of the states in which it operates except Iowa.
All supplements containing CBD sold in Fresh Thyme must be manufactured in a cGMP facility and require a Certificate of Analysis (COA) on every lot number. Product manufacturers must also include a QR code on labels allowing customers to access a COA, which enables them to see exactly how much CBD, THC and other cannabinoids are in the product in question, added Lawrence, who said employees at Fresh Thyme also go through training instore and offsite to help them understand the category and assist shoppers.
“We really liked what they were doing in Indiana and thought it might be something that could happen in other states, so it made sense [to adopt the standards enshrined in Indiana state law more widely]. But every state is different and every county is different, so you have to keep up with what's happening everywhere. In Iowa for example, we pulled all our CBD products.”
'It’s not a magic pill'
Asked where he sees the category going, he said, referencing an explosion of products with poor quality standards and egregious claims: “There’s been a lot of hype, but it’s not a magic pill, and it won’t solve everything, and what concerns me is that you can’t even drive to the office without seeing a sign at a gas station or a liquor store or a video store saying 'CBD sold here.' On the one hand if it’s a good product, that’s great, but there’s a danger with any ‘hot’ thing.
“I’ve seen this before with diet products; people would come in and buy whatever they see on Dr Oz and think they are going to lose 20lb, and when they don’t, they assume that supplements don’t work, and it hurts the category.”