Terpenes: they’re all around us! Literally – they make the great smells and flavors of things like lemons, lavender, fennel, pine trees, hops and lilacs.
They are, in fact, the reason for the “blue smoke” of the Smoky Mountains / Blue Ridge mountains in the eastern US. The pine trees in these regions emit enough terpenes into the atmosphere to scatter the light and create a bluish haze over the hills and mountains.
Terpenes and terpenoids are molecules built from a unit (think a “building block” molecule) called isoprene.
SO MANY things in biology use this small molecule to build things! Not only are they important as molecular building blocks, plants also use them for protection and as signaling molecules. Humans have used terpenes to our advantage as anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compounds (think tea tree oil), as precursors for medicine (taxol, synthetic steroids) and many other ways. Terpenes happen to have the right molecular properties for our smell and taste senses to detect.
There are over 120 different terpenes identified in cannabis. These are ACTUALLY what makes the difference between the various strain “highs” and different physical/mental effects–not if it’s an indica or sativa. Most strains have at least 10-25 different detectable levels of terpenes in their bud/flower, and the profile, or fingerprint, varies widely between strains.
When extracting/distilling/otherwise further processing flower material into a concentrate or extract, most–if not all–of the terpenes are lost, depending on the purification process. Highly pure THC doesn’t have the same feel, due to the absence of all the other compounds and the “entourage effect” of these molecules interacting with the cannabinoids and our personal biochemistry.
Most extract companies are savvy to this and have begun to add in terpenes. This is where the confusion and misleading language really comes in.
Since many different types of plants besides cannabis have terpenes, chemists can easily extract and isolate them (think limonene from lemons, or pinene from pine trees,) and sell them individually. Not to mention, these plants are legal everywhere, so you don’t need to have special cannabis licenses or even be in a legal state. In fact, it’s very easy to find these online and are completely legal to sell and buy. However, as already mentioned, each cannabis strain has multiple different terpenes that give its special smell/flavor/high. In each strain, a few terpenes are dominant/higher percentage, while most of the rest are at very low levels. It’s relatively inexpensive for a company to buy 3-4 of the main terpenes that occur in cannabis but are extracted from some other plant, and say it has a specific strain profile. It’s then easy to use terms like “100% natural”, “plant-derived”, “organic”, on the packaging.
However, you’re not getting any of the other lesser-concentrated terpenes at all. A nice visualization of this can be seen in the figure:
I’ve created a process at Avitas that collects ALL the terpenes from each batch of our flower in the beginning of our process, so we have the full spectrum of terpenes represented. Then, we clean up the oil concentrate and remove all the other stuff that doesn’t taste very good like chlorophyll and plant waxes. Then, we carefully hand-blend in the terpenes from each batch at the end so the finished oil smells and tastes and feels exactly like the actual flower it came from.
I’ve really enjoyed developing this process since joining Avitas and look forward to using our clean and green chemistry to offer 100% cannabis-only strain-specific flavor profiles moving forward!