Fact Sheet: What Are Terpenes, and Why Do They Matter?
What is a terpene?
Terpenes are a class of plant molecules that produce many of the characteristic floral, fruity and herbal fragrances we associate with botanical products -- from the citrus smell of a lemon peel to the piney scent of a Christmas tree. Over a hundred terpenes have been detected in cannabis. Every cannabis strain produces terpenes in different ratios. These unique “terpene profiles” often serve as the inspiration for strain names like Super Lemon Haze and Blueberry.
What's the role of terpenes in concentrate formulation?
Cannabinoid purification processes remove the majority of terpenes from cannabis extracts. This increases the viscosity, lowers therapeutic effectiveness, and leaves behind a poor flavor. To address this, many cannabis processors reintroduce small amounts of terpenes (5-10%) to restore the original therapeutic and olfactory properties of the extract. This is sometimes necessary to enable the liquids to flow inside a vaporizer, or to reproduce the plant’s original, complex aroma. Additionally, terpenes are critical to imparting effective physiological effects and are a very important part of cannabis’ therapeutic utility.
Are there different types of terpenes?
Terpenes can be extracted from plants, including cannabis—regardless of the source, the molecular structure is the same. That means that the terpenes themselves are identical. So what’s the difference between terpenes?
● Cannabis-derived: Cannabis flowers typically produce about 1-5% terpenes. Although these terpenes are produced in relative ratios desired by the consumer, it is impossible to extract the exact profile presented by the plant. Because cannabis is an expensive crop to produce, cannabis-derived terpenes are very costly. Cannabis derived terpenes are similar to the plant’s original composition, but not an exact copy.
● Botanically-derived: Also called plant-derived, these terpenes occur naturally in non- cannabis plants, such as flowers or fruits. They tend to be available in higher volumes, and as high purity individual terpenes (rather than complex profiles such as those found in essential oils). Depending on how these terpenes are extracted, they may contain impurities (i.e. pesticides considered safe to use on lemon peels may be unsafe if inhaled), so should be subject to the same testing requirements as cannabis. There are tremendous advantages to using these ingredients in producing standardized, consistent quality products that are completely analytically well defined.
● Adulterated botanically-derived: Similar to botanically-derived terpenes, these terpenes are sourced from a variety of plants, and are infused with ingredients aside from botanicals such as MCT, natural flavors, sugars, etc. While ingredients are not
always disclosed, it should be noted that some botanically-derived terpenes are somewhere between synthetic and naturally derived.
● Synthetic: Terpenes can also be produced through controlled chemical processes. These terpenes are often more economical, and usually start from other natural compounds as the first ingredient. Although they have the same molecular structure, these terpenes are not considered natural and pending the chemical process used, may contain chemical residues and other impurities, and therefore should also be subject to the same testing requirements as cannabis.
What should regulators consider when making policy?
As concerns about youth consumption of cannabis rise, the cannabis industry is united in efforts to prohibit advertising, marketing, or labeling that would appeal to children. However, due to the nature of how terpenes work in cannabis, there are important nuances for consideration, as policymakers look for new approaches to regulating flavors.
● Limitations on non-terpene flavor additives. The allowance of terpenes, both cannabis-derived and otherwise, in oil concentrates is imperative to providing proper therapeutic effect, the desired aromas and and effective viscosity of the oil. We believe the terpenes found in cannabis have thus far been demonstrated to provide functionality with reasonable safety, provided their concentrations are kept properly proportional to the plant’s profile.
● Provide additional clarity around allowed strain taxonomy. While most states already have standards in place around product names, we believe these can be strengthened to further prohibit—even when based on a widely-accepted cannabis strain name—names that reference child toys or characters or specific food products, such ascandy, snacks, juice, or desserts that are intended to appeal to children.