Unless you really want to dive into chemistry, there’s only one thing you need to know about decarboxylation: it’s a chemical reaction that takes place over time and is accelerated by heat. And it makes many elements in the cannabis plant—such as CBD—much more potent and bioavailable. (For those who care, the actual chemical reaction involves a carboxyl group (COOH) being exchanged for a hydrogen atom and producing carbon dioxide. Now you know.)
Decarboxylated cannabis is cannabis that has been heated at a relatively high temperature to accelerate this process. Raw cannabis, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: cannabis that hasn’t been heated and dried. Now, some decarboxylation does take place naturally over time even without heating, but time combined with heat (i.e. putting the product in an oven at 240 degrees for about two hours) is what puts it officially into “decarboxylated” territory. Raw cannabis has not been heated and is therefore, by definition, not decarboxylated.
Raw or cooked: which is better? It depends.
Which leads to some very obvious questions: Raw or cooked? Which is better? And what’s the difference?
The correct answer—not always the most satisfying answer, but the accurate one—is, it depends what you’re looking for.
I will be frank with you. Decarboxylation became a big deal in the pre-CBD cannabis community primarily because it activates the THC found in raw cannabis, known as THC-a—which is, relatively speaking, not very active—and turns it into the high-potency THC that marijuana users looking for a psychoactive effect desire. But as it turned out, decarboxylation also activates CBD, turning the less potent CBD-a found in raw hemp, into the much-more bioavailable CBD that we all know and love. And that’s exactly why we’re discussing it now.
So, you might think, if decarboxylation “turbo-activates” the important cannabinoids, making them more potent and more bioavailable, why would anyone want anything else?
Well, most people don’t want anything but decarb, whether they’re going after the psychoactive effects associated with THC, or the multiple non-psychoactive benefits associated with CBD. Decarboxylation is definitely the way to get the most bioavailable version of CBD.
The raw advantage: good on paper but…
But to be fair, there’s an advantage to raw CBD as well, which is that you get the full complement of flavonoids, terpenes and cannabinoids naturally found in the raw material. Yes, they may not be as bioavailable and potent, but you do get all of them. Yet this may not be as much of an advantage as it looks like on paper, especially because if you do the decarboxylation process at relatively low heat (i.e. 240 degrees or so), you preserve many of the compounds that might have been damaged by high heat.
As mentioned above, with raw you get the non-psychoactive version of THC (which is called THC-a), and a much less potent and bioavailable version of CBD, (which is called CBD-a). Apparently, these “inactive” compounds have some anti-inflammatory properties of their own. But raw is much more difficult to digest for many people. High heat decarb may well damage or even eliminate a few of the trace synergistic compounds found in raw cannabis, but it’s still unknown whether that ultimately makes much of a difference, and in any case, it applies even less to “low” heat decarb (i.e. under 240 degrees).
The decarb advantage: bioavailability & the entourage effect
With decarb products, you’re you’re getting a much more bioavailable and potent form of CBD, not to mention plenty of flavonoids and terpenes that survive the decarb process just fine, and produce the desired “entourage effect.”
As with many things in the rapidly expanding world of CBD products, you may have to experiment to see what works best for you. That said, keep in mind one solid piece of advice that can be applied to all situations involving any kind of CBD product: go with a reputable, established manufacturer that knows what they’re doing. That way, you’ll get the best product available, regardless of which choice you make.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS is a board-certified nutritionist and best-selling author. jonnybowden.com