The beverage format is becoming a popular vehicle for delivering cannabis, but manufacturers and brand owners need to pay as much attention to their base formula as their active ingredients, says Andy Dratt, EVP and chief commercial officer for Imbibe.

Dratt urged the cannabis industry to focus on food science during his presentation for the Cannabis Drinks Expo, held Aug. 1 at Morgan Manufacturing in Chicago.

“The liquid matters, right? It really matters,” he said. “And as you think about launching products, you get into these debates about you know what's the dose — low or high? What's the source CBD or THC from cannabis or hemp? But you need to put as much thought into the liquid itself.”

Dratt offered several examples of pitfalls that cannabis beverage brands can encounter, such as not pasteurizing a juice-based product or using aluminum can liners that pull cannabinoids from a beverage formulation, throwing off testing results and reducing product quality.

He also noted its imperative to use ingredients that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for humans to consume, adding that brand owners and manufacturers must work with their suppliers to ensure the ingredients are safe.

“There were a lot of products out there made by people who are new to the food industry let's not forget that that's fundamentally where we're in, right? It is an experience and it is a form of recreation, but the delivery is food, and you have to apply the rules of food, particularly from a safety perspective. So (that entails) understanding how products work, how the emulsion works, what ingredients are in there, how the supplier is going to be able to demonstrate that those are GRAS.”

Dratt also discussed building flavor profiles for cannabis drinks. Cannabis, which expresses bitter off-notes, can require complementary flavors or flavor masking altogether. He noted flavors such as chocolate, honey, banana, lemon, cinnamon and coconut work well with cannabis, though not all are conducive to the beverage format. However, other popular flavor profiles are tropical, citrus, botanical and indulgent in nature.

“Picking the right kind of flavor matters, and they can help with things like off-note suppression, taste enhancement and differentiation,” he said.

Dratt also covered adding functional ingredients, such as terpenes and ashwagandha, to deliver effects such as vitality, relaxation, focus and exercise performance.

But no matter the function or flavor, if companies don’t invest in their own research and development teams, Dratt recommended working with experienced product developers to confirm the safety and quality of their cannabis-infused food and beverage products.

“It is the best money you could spend to have someone review your products, your process and your manufacturing partners to ensure that they know what they're doing, because a lot of people are doing this for the first time, and they don't know what they don't know,” he said.

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