What’s the deal with flavored vape cartridges?

You may have seen or even sampled some flavored oils – things like pineapple or bubble gum or fruit punch.  There’s a chance some of those flavorings might be terpenes, but most likely many of them are not.

Many of the fruit flavors like banana, strawberry, mint, peach, raspberry are due to the presence of chemical compounds called aldehydes or ketones.  While natural fruits/plants do make these flavors, many of the individual molecules are very easy to synthesize in a chemistry lab – in fact, if you took any organic chemistry lab, you probably did a lab experiment where you made one of these fruity smelling compounds.

So what’s the difference between what you synthesize in the lab and what you find in a real raspberry?  The aldehyde molecule is the same, giving a “raspberry-specific” flavor, but in a real berry, there are also lots of other various molecules that add taste, aroma and experience.  The aldehyde molecule that is used for synthetic raspberry flavor is only present at very low concentrations in a real berry, which is why we don’t extract or concentrate these flavors from real berries – it’s just too expensive.  This is similar to the various terpenes and other compunds in a natural cannabis flower bud that lead to the “entourage effect” of each strain’s specific flavor, aroma and “high”.

There are two reasons this relates to cannabis vape pens: taste and viscosity.

Most of the yummy terpenes “disappear” during normal CO2 oil processing and concentrating: those molecules are smaller and more likely to evaporate than the cannabinoids.  A few do remain in the end, but often user’s complaint about CO2 oils is that the high doesn’t feel the same as smoking the flower– this makes sense because what’s left in the oil is mostly THC (that’s the potency people look for) and only a very small amount of the original terpenes.

Secondly, another interesting chemistry aspect about these types of concentrates (and particularly distillates, which we’ll discuss in another post) is that when you get to very high THC concentrations–above 90% or so–the oil get very thick.  To the point of almost being a brittle solid and stops functioning in a normal oil cartridge.  These can still be dabbed, but the convenience of a vape cartridge is lost along with all the flavors.

Processors overcome these 2 chemistry facts in a couple of ways.  To address the loss of flavor, other substances can be added: things like synthetic terpenes (fairly common), natural terpenes (fairly common) or cannabis-derived terpenes (much more rare), artificial aldehydes/fruity flavors, or other artificial flavors.  Additionally, the thick/solid nature of highly-concentrated extracts can be “thinned” with a solvent.  This can be as simple as leaving a small amount of extra ethanol in after the cleanup step, or by adding a cutting agent of some kind.  Common cutting agents include PG, PEG, VG, MCT, among others. (Propylene glycol, Polyethylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and medium-chain triglycerides).  The MCT might appear on the label as “derived from coconut oil”–which is scientifically true.

This usually leads to the question: “why should I care if it’s natural or artificial if it’s all the same molecule?”

We can probably agree that eating lots of raspberries with some aldehydes isn’t that bad for you….However, there is very little known about the safety of smoking these compounds, and in fact, recent scientific studies [1,2] suggest many of the artificial fruit and cream flavors and cutting agents convert to toxic compounds when heated to vape temperatures.

So how to know what you’re getting?  Reading the label very carefully and knowing your terminology can help, as well as asking very specific questions of the budtender:

What type of extraction process was used for this?  If it’s a distillate and in a liquid form, something was needed to thin it down. (CO2 concentrate is more correctly referred to as an extract).

Is it 100% cannabis-only or might there be other flavors or additives?  How do they know for sure?

Sometimes it can be hard or impossible to tell – I hate to say I’ve heard some less-than-honest stories about formulations and use of language on packaging.  Avitas never uses any cutting agents in our extracts and only 100% cannabis-derived terpenes that we carefully preserve for each batch.

References: [1] Allen, et al, 2016, Environmental Health Perspectives, 124, 6. “ Flavoring Chemicals in E-Cigarettes: Diacetyl, 2,3-Pentanedione, and Acetoin in a Sample of 51 Products, Including Fruit-, Candy-, and Cocktail-Flavored E-Cigarettes”

[2] Troutt & DiDonato, 2017, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine “Carbonyl Compounds Produced by Vaporizing Cannabis Oil Thinning Agents”

Six behind-the-scenes things Avitas customers should know about

There are lots of topics I want to write about on this blog, but it will take a little time to cover all of them individually.  In the meantime, I put together an overview of some of the things we do behind the scenes that other extractors either aren’t doing at all, or are not devoting nearly the amount of energy or resources that we are.  The sentences with an *asterisk* I definitely plan to write more in-depth entries.  As always, if there are questions you have, leave them in the comments!

  1. We’re fanatics about testing everything for pesticides as it comes into our facility
    1. many people claim to have 100% organic products, but analytical labs report finding banned pesticides in many products on the shelf (between 40-80% in WA and 20-30% in OR have some sort of detected banned pesticide!*)
    2. this comes at considerable cost to us, as each test is over $300. When I discuss results with the scientists at the analytical labs, they tell me they don’t have other extract labs testing their trim material.
  2. The only chemicals in our extract and process labs (aside from organic cannabis) are:
    • pure CO2 carbon dioxide (comes in pressurized tanks)
    • Food-grade ethanol (fancy talk for highly pure EverclearTM)
    • Purified reverse-osmosis water
    • Solid CO2 (carbon dioxide) + rubbing alcohol (for our cold traps, does not contact product)

–we don’t use cutting agents like PG, VG, artificial flavors* or other fillers.

3. We carefully keep each harvested strain as a separate batch*

  • Sometimes we get a large batch, sometimes we get a small batch – that’s part of being reliant on a perishable/seasonal feedstock! To ensure the finished oil smells, tastes and experiences as close to the actual flower as possible, we don’t mix strains in our extractors.  That means our finished batch sizes are variable and it’s not always possible to find the exact same product month after month in your favorite retailer.

4. We enhance our finished oil with the full spectrum of terpenes collected in-house from each batch

  • A previous blog post was written about terpenes, but the summary is: most companies who claim to have “terpene-enhanced” product are not getting them from cannabis and most folks have no idea where the source of these additives might be coming from*…..

5.  We spend more than most companies in research and development (R&D) of our procedure, tracking the cannabinoids and terpenes, fine-tuning our processing steps to optimize and improve the overall product.

  • We have a full-time PhD chemist leading our scientific team
  • We don’t currently have the expensive in-house analytical equipment, so it’s necessary to partner with outside analytical labs, which comes at no small cost to us, but it’s important to us that we feel confident we’re offering a clean and safe product*.

6.  Multi-point quality control checkpoints integrated along the process line*

  • I already discussed the additional pesticide screening before extraction above. We also check each batch for:
    • viscosity (how “thick” the oil is – for example, honey is very viscous, while water is much less)
    • color/clarity on visual standard scale
  • cartridge performance and reliability*: we have personal relationships with the overseas manufacturers of the cartridges and have been testing out many different iterations to ensure they have a smooth product delivery each time.

As you can see, we utilize top-level science and clean, organic processes to create a premium product for our customers and patients.

Welcome!

We’ve been so busy focusing on understanding our science, making a great product even better and investing in upgrades to our premium cannabis extracts, we realized that most people don’t even realize all the ways our product is the best available!

We hope this blog will help folks understand some of the science behind what we do, keep up with trends and new research in the industry, and be a resource for reliable scientific knowledge of cannabis products.  Let us know if you have a “burning” question you’d like answered!

~The Avitas Team

 

 

What does “Full-spectrum” mean and other fun terpene facts

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.

smokey mountains
 

Great Smoky Mountain National Park showing blue haze due to terpenes from pine trees.  Photo credit: Dave Allen

 

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.

terpene post_image 1

On the left: two isoprene units (5 carbons each).  Middle & Right: two common terpene molecules showing how the two isoprene units make their structure.

 

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:

terpene post_full v partial spectra

figure courtesy of http://www.evolab.com

 

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!