Your Terpene Questions, Answered
As of early 2019, there is a lot of talk in the cannabis industry about the various terpenes that are found within the cannabis plant. Retailers and budtenders alike are advertising the terpene content of strains when serving customers in the legal recreational market. However, if you are just stepping into the complex world of cannabis science, you might be wondering, “what the heck are terpenes”? Well, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, I will walk you through the definition of terpenes, types of terpenes that are known to exist within cannabis, and how certain terpenes can correlate to a unique cannabis experience when ingested.
What is a Terpene?
Terpenes, or terpenoids, are the organic compounds (specifically, hydrocarbon molecules) that exist in plant matter that are responsible for the aroma or flavor of that plant. They are not unique to cannabis by any means, but actually exist in other plants and certain insects, as well. Some common plants that include terpenes include mangos, lemons, fir trees, lavender, and grass. Plants and insects have evolved terpenes as a survival mechanism; in nature, terpenes can repel predators and attract food sources or helpful organisms. But, lucky for us, terpenes also contribute to some of the most delicious food sources known to humankind. Terpenes are responsible for the flavors behind famous delicacies such as sea urchin and black truffles.
If you have ever used essential oils, essential oils are basically just distillations of the terpenes contained within a particular plant. I now understand why having eucalyptus essential oil rubbed on my back is so soothing at the hair salon; the aroma of eucalyptus terpenes emanates the calming and purifying contents found within the eucalyptus plant. Ahhh, pure bliss!
Which Terpenes are Common to Cannabis?
While researchers have discovered more than 200 terpenes within the cannabis plant, the following terpenes are those most commonly found in the product sold in recreational shops:
Myrcene. Known to: Sedate, support digestion, comfort. Found in: Mangos, Musk, Parsley.
Caryophyllene. Known to: Relieve, ease, refresh. Found in: Echinacea (coneflower), Pepper, Hops.
Limonene. Known to: Refresh, stimulate, elevate. Found in: Lemon, Grapefruit, Orange.
Humulene. Known to: Calm, relieve, suppress appetite. Found in: Hops, Wood, Cilantro.
Pinene. Known to: Focus, energize, and support healthy respiration (breathing). Found in: Pine, Dill, Fir needles.
Linalool. Known to: Relax, soothe. Found in: Lavendar, Mint, Spice.
Terpinolene. Known to: Focus, soothe. Found in: Fir, Black currant, Lilac.
Ocimene. Known to: Warm, calm, relieve. Found in: Celery, Mint, Basil.
Are Terpenes in Cannabis akin to Tannins in Wine?
Kind of! The reason I highlight the analogy between terpenes and tannins is because this is quickly becoming the “go-to” for explaining cannabis terpenes; retailers and publications in the cannabis industry are advertising the correlation between the two because it provides some relatable context for most consumers. While the average consumer may not be as familiar with the complexities found within the cannabis plant, most consumers who drink alcohol are at least somewhat acquainted with the concept of varying “tannins” or flavor aromas within wine. Wine is complex, but that complexity has been normalized in our society and so it doesn’t alienate anyone; consider that we’ve been acclimated to wine our entire lives and it is available in every decent grocery store, accompanied by friendly staff and reverent, tacky grape vine decorations. If cannabis retailers and proponents can continue to advertise the relationship between cannabis and wine, it is more likely that the average consumer, in the years to come, will start to see cannabis as the normalized, acceptable, tonic that we can incorporate into our fatigued Friday nights and our social interactions.
Aside from the social factors that contribute to the frequent correlation between terpenes and tannins, both have some objective similarities, as well. Both terpenes and tannins are dependent on the location in which the ingredients were produced. For example, the wine from an individual vineyard is likely going to have a unique flavor that is unlike the same grape grown at a neighboring vineyard. For cannabis, even within the same “strain category”, there will be variation in the terpene profiles between products that were grown with at different farms. Scientifically, this makes sense, because the subtle differences in sunlight exposure and soil content that would be natural to two different plots of land would result in subtly different yields.
In concept, the analogy between terpenes and tannins can be extended to many other products and industries that are commonly enjoyed. For example, the unique flavor of a strain can be compared to the uniqueness of your favorite craft beer, poured directly from the tap at their flagship location. Another analogy that is particularly salient to me is to consider the variation of flavors and aromas attributed to coffee. At your local Starbucks, you can find blends of coffee with subtle differences from one another, such as dark roast, medium roast, and blonde roast. You are also able to procure beans from various parts of the world, and certain coffee beans are more coveted than others; for example, I recently found a 1-lb bag of coffee at the Seattle Starbucks Roastery that was on sale for $85.00. After college, I used to manage a Starbucks, and so I can tell you that it’s not a simple task to learn about the varied coffee flavor profiles; in fact, it takes days of training to teach this to a new barista!
So, when it comes to cannabis, it’s incredibly important that the industry focuses on budtender and consumer education so that the perceived complexity behind terpenes and their meaning can start to transform into consumer understanding and eventually, consumer trust. That is part of my “why”, as well; I want to help to educate on the scientific and social benefits of this plant so that you and your loved ones can start to incorporate this natural elixer into your life!
Does the Terpene Profile of Cannabis Change It’s Effect?
Yes. In fact, this is why terpenes are generating so much buzz within the cannabis industry right now. For years, users and cannabis sellers (in both the legal and illegal market) have utilized the basic “sativa” versus “indica” terminology to describe the perceived effects of a cannabis strain, but this framework unfortunately doesn’t adequately encapsulate the myriad of different “effects” that can be felt through cannabis. A discussion of a strain’s terpene profile, however, allows for a more accurate portrayal of the type of experience the end-user will have after smoking or ingesting the marijuana. The reason terpenes provide the most accurate means of explaining their effects is because this gets down to the specific chemistry of the plant.
The overall “feeling” that someone experiences after using a particular strain is often called the “entourage effect”. This refers to the unique experience that can be attributed to the specific combination of terpenes within that strain. The science of cannabis can get muddled, and since the recreational market has only been around since 2012, researchers and retailers are just starting to understand the resultant mental and physical effects that will come from certain combinations. I think that individual consumers can play a role in this conversation, as well. Cannabis companies tend to pay a great deal of attention to the “voice of the customer”, and so consumer feedback about the “high” achieved from certain strains/terpene profiles can help companies accurately advertise the benefits that can be associated with each of their products. And crowd-sourcing opinions on the effects of various strains matters, because unlike alcohol, everyone’s cannabis experience is unique. Everyone’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is wired a little bit differently, based on both genetic DNA variation as well as environmental factors (nutrition, body weight, age).
With so many terpene profiles out there in cannabis, it can be a little overwhelming to try to select the right one for you. But don’t be overwhelmed by the choice paradox of so many terpene profile options. Rather, once you select a strain to try, I recommend experiencing it mindfully. This will allow you to take stock of what you like, what you don’t like, and also take the time to express some gratitude for the cannabis you just smoked or ate. When enjoying a cannabis strain, even if it isn’t my favorite, I like to take the time to express gratitude for the unique, individualized experience and then take stock of how it is reacting with me. Consider: what flavors do I taste? How do I feel? Do I want to chase this particular experience again?
Also, what’s more mindful than realizing that hit of weed you just took is unlike any other? With every inhalation, you are experiencing a unique blend of aromas and flavor notes, created in nature, that are here to help you enjoy this moment to the fullest extent.
What’s more mindful than realizing the hit of weed you just took is unlike any other?
You will never be in this moment, with this same terpene profile again. Enjoy it. Oohhhmmm.
Interpreting Terpene Profile from Cannabis Labeling
You’ll hear this a lot about the cannabis industry: “It’s the Wild, Wild, West out there”. This is truly an overused way to describe the raw energy and pandemonium that exists in the marketplace, but people say it because it’s true. Welcome to the inevitable confusion that is unavoidable after the lift of prohibition for a substance that should have been readily available to the public for some time! Anyway, one of the implications of the “newness” of the cannabis industry is that the product labels are not yet standardized. So, when it comes to communicating the complexities of a product’s innate benefits to customers, it can be a little overwhelming for the retailer and the consumer alike.
There is a Seattle company that is currently working to make their mark on how the industry labels cannabis products. Cannabinder has developed what they call the “Cannastamp”, a wheel chart that breaks down the plant type, cannabinoid, and terpene profile found within a strain. Other local companies, such as Heylo Cannabis, are partnering with Cannabinder to put the Cannastamp on all of their products. However, there is no way to predict whether or not this will become the industry standard.
Here is an example of the Cannastamp that is now available for customer review across various retailers.
The inner circle of the visual provides insight into the breakdown of the two main cannabinoids found within the strain: THC and CBD. As a quick refresher, THC is the infamous psychoactive component of cannabis (think creativity, reduction of boundaries, hippies partying, the whole nine yards). CBD, conversely, is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has recently taken the wellness world by storm. While it will not make you high, CBD can help to alleviate stress, anxiety, and a number of different physical ailments that are common to the American population.
The outer circle visualizes the various terpenes that are contained within the cannabis strain. This is how you can interpret the terpene profile of the strain to determine if it is in line with what you are looking for.
While this isn’t yet the industry standard, I wish Cannabinder success and I’m a fan of how their visualization can help to make intricate cannabis science more simple. Hopefully this takes hold as we look forward to the inevitable national legalization.
Terpenes to Enhance, Not Replace, Prior Weed Terminology
While terpenes and terpene profiles are the hot new focus in the cannabis industry, this terminology is not going to eradicate the language we used before to explain the variations between cannabis strains. For generations, cannabis users have distinguished between strains using the terms “sativa” and “indica”. These are still valuable terms, as they allude to the actual plant variations that are prevalent in cannabis. Cannabis is either derived from the cannabis sativa plant (tall stocks, skinny leaves) or the cannabis sativa indica plant (shorter stocks, thicker leaves). There is also the cannabis ruderalis plant, but I’ve never seen the term “ruderalis” included in any cannabis marketing in a shop, and I didn’t hear that term until I started to extensively research cannabis.
For those of you who aren’t already acquainted with the basic feelings associated with cannabis sativa or cannabis indica, I have included some brief highlights below.
An energetic high. After imbibing with cannabis that induces the typical sativa effect, you may feel ready to take on the world! Or, well, engage in some baby steps that will ultimately result in world domination such as deep cleaning your house, writing, creating, or exercising. In fact, my typical exercise routine is this: I hop on my spin bike, vape sativa as I ride, and listen to dance music by the likes of Miley and Selena. It’s a good time.
A lazy, laid-back high. “Couch-lock” or “body high” are terms for what is commonly associated with an “indica” effect, alluding to a heavy physical tranquility within the body that may result in low motivation, desire to remain inactive, and overall fatigue. Sherpa blanket, anyone?
However, the more we learn about terpenes, the more obvious it becomes that the prior terminology of “sativa” and “indica” is too limited. For example, an indica strain with high potency of terpenes that are attributed to a more energetic high, such as limonene, may have an overall effect on the user that would have normally been described as a “sativa” high. With this in mind, it’s going to be important that new users are educated on both sets of terms (plant-type as well as terpene profile).
I hope this article has provided some clarity about what terpenes are all about! I anticipate that over time, cannabis users indulging in recreational cannabis will become more familiar with this terminology, and I can’t wait to see what sub-culture and slang terms develop around terpenes. As someone who smoked “dro” in high school (not that I advocate under-age use), I am excited to follow the progress of cannabis slang and street culture as we learn more and more about this wonderful plant!