As more states legalize cannabis products and medical cannabidiols are now allowed in Iowa, retailers in Central Iowa are beginning to push the envelope by introducing CBD-infused products. 

Although some health-food stores in Greater Des Moines have begun to nibble around the edges at the lucrative market for cannabidiol (CBD)-infused foods, beverages and nutraceuticals, it remains to be seen whether larger Iowa-based grocers such as Hy-Vee Inc. or Kum & Go will share an appetite for carrying CBD products, given the murky legal status of non-medical CBD both in Iowa and nationally.  

Tony Sparks has spent his career marketing and distributing snack items like pop and potato chips to convenience stores and grocery chains. Now, he specializes in curating the highest-quality hemp-based and cannabidiol infused products he can find, with the goal of landing shelf space for CBD products in those same markets.  

Sparks’ West Des Moines-based company, Betterment Retail Solutions Inc., aims to build a market for a line of selected CBD-infused products, ranging from a top-selling brand of bottled water to energy bars and other foods and supplements that have varying degrees of CBD content. 

All of the products’ CBD levels carried by Betterment are below the threshold that would make them subject to state regulation as legal medical CBD products, and most importantly, are thoroughly researched to ensure their safety and quality, Sparks said. 

As an additional quality check, Betterment’s products are also reviewed by the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, Colleen Lanier, whom Sparks said he relies on as a product consultant. 

Sparks spent the bulk of his 25-year career as a national category manager and marketing vice president for Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. convenience stores and its affiliates, and most recently was vice president of merchandising for Des Moines-based Yesway convenience stores. 

Sparks said he stands behind the legality of the products that Betterment represents, both from the status given hemp products from the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as a recent position statement from the Iowa Department of Public Health. 

In December, the medical CBD market launched in Iowa with the opening of MedPharm Iowa, a Des Moines company licensed to legally produce cannabidiol products for people with specified conditions such as cancer and chronic pain. 

In a December 2018 letter, the Iowa Department of Public Health stated that it is not authorized to regulate the sale or use of non-medical CBD products. However, IDPH officials also noted that the state law doesn’t protect Iowans who dispense, sell, possess, or use such products that don’t fall under its purview from potential criminal prosecution by federal, state or local law enforcement. 

“CBD is still illegal in Iowa,” said Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of IDPH, last week. “It’s still a Schedule I item in Iowa, and people need to be aware of that. … Quite frankly, we’ve seen that the laws are being enforced differently in different areas of the state regarding people who are selling the exact type of products that Betterment is selling.” 

The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill hasn’t changed the department’s opinion on cannabidiols, she said.  

Reisetter said that consumers should also be aware that CBD products are neither regulated nor tested. “It’s really buyer beware in terms of [not knowing] what you’re getting,” she said. “With these kinds of products, it does seem like the toothpaste is out of the tube.” 

The farm bill recently signed by President Donald Trump made hemp a legal crop in the United States, provided it has levels of THC — the euphoria-inducing chemical that produces a high — below 0.3 percent. The farm bill also made it legal for hemp-derived products to be sold, transported and possessed, if they’re produced in a manner consistent with the act. 

The products Betterment distributes fully conform to the farm bill’s provisions, the company states in a disclaimer statement.  

Sparks said he started the company with the intent to promote health and wellness products rather than CBD items specifically, but all the research led him to specialize in CBD and hemp items. 

Betterment’s products, with fun brand names like Evo Hemp Bars, King Karl Chocolate and Funky Farms Gummies, range in CBD dosage from levels for general health (2.5-15 mg) to anxiety and stress (15-35 mg) to chronic pain (30-50+ mg). So depending on the dosage, the benefits range from better overall well-being to easing anxiety pain relief without the use of opioids. 

Gateway Market in Des Moines is among the first retailers to begin selling CBD products offered by Betterment.  

“I’m excited about it,” said David Clemens, store director for Gateway Market. “I think there’s huge potential.” 

Currently, the only product from Betterment it sells is CBD Living Water, a half-liter bottled water infused with 5 mg of CBD. “We’re kind of starting off slow with it,” he said. “We’re not carrying the tinctures yet, but we’re open to it.”  

Gateway Market has sold hemp products before, among them hemp seed and hemp hearts that are used in snack items and protein bars, but not CBD-infused products, Clemens said. 

Clemens anticipates Gateway Market could carry a wide assortment of CBD-infused items, provided there’s sufficient interest. “We’re primarily a grocery store, so I think our customers would be mostly interested in food and drink infused items,” he said. “Certainly the waters and chocolates and protein bars I think will do well.” 

Hy-Vee is among some of the larger grocery companies that Betterment is courting. The West Des Moines-based regional grocer hasn’t made a decision yet on carrying CBD products, but is willing to consider them, the company said in an email. 

“Hy-Vee is open to creating a marketplace for products that Congress created a pathway to sell,” said Christina Gayman, director of public relations. “Our goal is to continue to offer products and services that cater to all of our customers.” 

Betterment will have three primary revenue sources, Sparks said, with its primary stream being full-service direct-store delivery.  

The company also serves as a broker for these brands and will earn commissions from sales of those items. One of the largest broad-line grocery distributors, Core-Mark, has invited Sparks to travel to San Francisco in March to help educate its representatives on the CBD business, he said. 

The third part of the business is direct-to-consumer, meaning that any items stocked in its warehouse can also be ordered online and delivered. 

“One thing that's unique with us on the ecommerce side is that we do home delivery at no charge,” he said. Its goal is same-day (24-hour) delivery within a 75-mile radius of Des Moines. 

What’s the next step for Betterment? Working with Iowa farmers interested in growing hemp to develop Iowa-made CBD-infused products. 

Sparks said he truly believes in the products he represents. 

“After 25 consecutive years in grocery retailing, selling primarily items that are not good for anyone, I am now dedicated to providing only items intended to assist people in their effort to be better,” he said.