FECO, Distillate & Isolate: What’s the Difference?

Sep 7, 2021 | Blog, News

By Anthony DeMeo and Stefanie Gangano, Ph.D.

Full Spectrum Oil, Distillate, and Isolate: These three terms are used throughout the cannabis and CBD industries, but are often misunderstood. Each term represents a specific form of cannabinoid concentrate, similar but distinct. In this article, we will give a brief overview of what each term means and the similarities and differences between the concentrates.

Anthony DeMeo at GT Nevada lab.

Full Extract Cannabis Oil (Full Spectrum Oil)

“Full Spectrum Oil” is a term that was coined for CBD marketing, but the non-marketing term is “Full Extract Cannabis Oil” or FECO. In the past, another term used to describe this was “Rick Simpson Oil” or RSO, but that is being used less today. These terms mean that all of the constituents of the plant are extracted and concentrated into the oil, regardless of method of extraction. This includes the cannabinoids, terpenes, lipids, plant sugars, chlorophyll, solvent and other compounds that may solubilize from the extraction method used.

The concentration of total cannabinoids in FECO ranges from 50-70% with the remaining percentage being “other plant components.” FECO has the highest potential for the synergistic effects that cannabis is known for because the whole crew of cannabis compounds and supporting actors are there.

Distillate

A distillate is a highly purified cannabinoid concentrate that leaves behind “co-extracted” compounds such as terpenes, waxes, and plant sugars. To make distillate we use FECO that has been processed through winterization and other purification methods. Then the oil is loaded into a short path distillation system and stripped further. Typical distillate will contain only cannabinoids, but some residual terpenes and co-extracts can make it through the process. 

The concentration of total cannabinoids in distillate ranges from 80-95%, with the remaining percentage being co-extracts. The terpenes and other constituents of the plant are destroyed or degraded in the distillation process basically making them filler. Distillate can provide the synergistic effects of cannabinoids, but there will be no benefit from terpenes or the other compounds that the plant may contain. Distillate will have less of a cannabis taste than full-spectrum oil, and therefore is favored to be used by manufacturers in edibles.

Isolate

Isolates are very different from FECO and distillate. Isolates are singular, individual cannabinoids that have been purified to have zero “co-extracts” and are typically crystalline solids, not oils. The two most common isolates are THCa and CBD, but chemists are beginning to isolate other cannabinoids. When we say CBD isolate, we mean a crystalline substance that is 99%+ CBD.  It has no terpenes, fats, solvents, or anything else. This is sort of the “blank slate” cannabinoid because it has zero synergistic effects. Isolate is in a league of its own; it is not an oil and is a single compound.  Moving forward in this article, we are going to set isolate to the wayside.

In-process distillate dripping down.

Similar but Distinct

Now that we know what each of these terms mean and how they are different, it is equally important to recognize how FECO and distillate are similar. They both contain a ratio of cannabinoids that is similar to the plant that it was extracted from. If we extracted a cultivar that had a ratio of 2:1 (THC:CBD) the FECO would be 2:1 and the distillate would be 2:1, or very close to the ratio. The same is true for the other minor cannabinoids within the plant — THC, CBD, CBN, CBG, THCV, and all of the other cannabinoids will get extracted to the FECO, and because cannabinoids have very similar boiling points they will co-distill.  

A decent analogy between FECO and distillate is whole milk and evaporated milk. With whole milk you have fats and water in place that reduce the concentration, but with evaporated milk you remove the fats and water to increase concentration. If you were to have a recipe that calls for whole milk, but you don’t have any, evaporated milk can be used. If you used evaporated milk you would need to adjust the quantity of milk in the recipe to get the same outcome as whole milk. The same is true for FECO vs distillate. If we wanted to make a 10mg THC edible we could use either FECO or distillate, but we would use a different quantity of each to achieve the 10mg THC goal. Assuming that both types of oil were from the same plant, the 10mg THC edible would also contain all of the minor cannabinoids.

Bulk FECO (from left), distillate and isolate.

Unique Effects

One important thing to note about these cannabis concentrates is that the effects may not always be the same. When reading about using cannabis you will learn about synergistic effects, or the effect that each compound within the plant has on each other and ultimately on the individual. Any oil that contains terpenes and cannabinoids will have a unique effect relative to the terpenes and cannabinoids it contains.

Blue Dream concentrate will feel different than Sunset Sherbet concentrate. Distillate is different because it doesn’t contain terpenes; it’s only the cannabinoids. This is true when smoking and when making edibles. A 10mg THC edible made using Nightmare Cookies FECO can very likely give a different effect than a 10mg THC edible made using distillate from Nightmare Cookies, despite having the same ratio of cannabinoids.

So while FECO and distillate are very different they are also very similar. They are both forms of concentrated cannabinoids with ratios that are true to the original plant. Yet each category has its own unique identifiers, whether it’s the terpenes from the plant or a high concentration of cannabinoids.  Don’t be afraid to use either FECO or distillate for personal consumption or edibles, but be aware that the results may be slightly different despite coming from a singular source and having the same dosage.

Anthony DeMeo and Stefanie Gangano, Ph.D. are co-chairs of Oaksterdam’s Extracts and Manufacturing Department. Learn more about oils, isolate, distillates and how to make them in our new, self-paced Commercial Extractions and Manufacturing course.