How to Make the Best Cannabis Edibles, According to Your Stomach
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Something stomach-churning sits in the food science lab at the University of Guelph. Pulsating quietly in the corner, its constant ruminations might seem unnerving, but forget that gut instinct. Because while this piece of lab equipment might be a stomach-turner, it’s also the best digestion simulator money can buy.
Consisting of countless valves, tubes, fluids and pumps, this TNO gastrointestinal model, or TIM for short, recreates the body’s gastrointestinal tract from stomach to small intestine in every segment, minus the smell. A rare prize among food science labs, only a handful can be found across North America. And only one of those is regularly fed cannabis edibles.
“There's no automated system that mimics the digestive system better than the TIM-1 system,” says Michael Rogers, an associate professor at the University of Guelph. “It is by far the best. The gold standard for simulated digestion.” Working with the university’s food science unit, Rogers’ research focuses on developing long-term solutions to health problems by studying how food fats are manufactured. But by turning his attention to marijuana edibles, Rogers’ studies could do a fat load of good for cannabis science, too.
“So, using this TIM system, we can look at where the release of THC is, so it's not released at all in the upper GI (gastrointestinal tract),” says Rogers. “Instead, it makes it through to the lower GI, where it's fermented, broken down, and metabolized by the gut microbiome.”
“We’re one of three in Canada, I believe [that own a TIM]. We have one of the original systems, which was $450,000 to purchase, so it's state of the art.”
The equipment may be pricey, but Rogers’ research with the TIM unit has produced some priceless results. In a paper published in the journal Current Opinion in Food Science, he and his colleagues highlighted how certain fats can help preserve the bioactivity of cannabinoids in edibles. The work could prove invaluable to the edibles industry, as the mediums often waste more of their cannabis content than they impart, according to Rogers.
“So, depending on the studies we look at, inhalation has the highest bio-accessibility, north of 20-25 percent,” he says. “But when you start talking about edibles – a chocolate bar, cookie or an oil, for example - you're talking single digit bio-accessibility, meaning 90 percent of that never exerts its biological effects. It's either degraded in first pass metabolism or it's just excreted with the feces.”
While it’s true that cannabis edibles often produce longer lasting psychotropic effects than inhalable products, the average levels of cannabinoid uptake are much lower due to poor absorption by the gastrointestinal tract. To remedy this weaker effect, Rogers tried binding the cannabinoids to fats, which can carry THC and CBD through the epithelial layer to the intestines. “So instead of going through the haptic portal vein to the liver,” he explains, “we can get it to go in with the oil through the lymphatic system, which then bypasses first pass metabolism.”
The research could regurgitate resounding results for the cannabis industry. Informed by such studies, edibles producers could tailor their products to release their effects in different ways. One product could have a long delay with a quick release in the colon, another could be designed for an instant hit in the upper gastrointestinal tract. With the right investment, research like the University of Guelph’s could help create a whole new, digestibly-viable market. But Rogers is keen to warn manufacturers that, if handled poorly, fatty cannabis edibles could leave users with more than just an upset tummy.
“A lot of what happened in the tobacco industry in the ‘60s, where they were trying to increase the bio-availability of nicotine, you're starting to see already become talked about in the cannabis industry,” he says. “And it's very important early on that in the cannabis industry we establish a set of criteria that keep us away from using ingredients that give the competitive edge but may have a detrimental effect.”
But before the cannabis industry can learn from the mistakes of the past, it must get through the regulations of today. And while the country legalized the drug back in 2018, Canada’s regulators still press many limits on cannabis’ production, sale, and research. Fortunately for Rogers, these pressures may actually push his more bioactive edibles to the fore. “So within Canada, the market is going to be defined with strict regulations on the absolute amount of cannabis that can be incorporated into food products. But as we can we maximize the bioavailability of that THC and CBD, we modify that without actually just simply increasing concentrations.”
And Rogers’ fatty methods aren’t the only way he and his team at Guelph bypass constricting regulations. Thanks to the university’s TIM-1, the group can assess the bioavailability of cannabinoids in the human digestive system without the need for a single salivating subject.
“One of the limitations in universities is using human subjects, as ethics requirements are quite stringent,” says Rogers. “This inevitably slows down research and development with regards to delivery and edibles. But now [with the TIM-1] we don't actually have to test bio-accessibility using human subjects; we circumvent the need for human ethical approval.”
Buoyed by these benefits, Rogers’ research and expertise could become hotly sought after by cannabis companies. Given the rapidly expanding Canadian cannabis industry, a highly potent and effective edible could be just the product to set a company above the competitive market. Luckily for them, Rogers and his TIM are hungry for more research.
“We want to create a recreational market product. We want that associated feeling of highness with the THC. We want a quick, rapid early release,” he says. “The avenues are endless.”