You cannot involve yourself with the blissful practice of habitual cannabis consumption and not hear about terpenes or terpenoids. So, what are these weird compounds? Should we take them into account when cooking with cannabis? In this article, I’ll try to explain what they are in a simple and friendly manner.
Terpenes are compounds produced by many plants (not only cannabis) that give their carrier its distinctive aroma and flavor. They are distinguished by their strong odor which serves to protect the plants by discouraging predators and luring pollinators. There are over twenty thousand documented types of terpenes. A tad more than a hundred and forty of them have been identified in the cannabis plant. Terpenes and terpenoids, which represent a modified version of terpenes, are the main ingredients in many essential oils of plants and flowers. They are used in traditional medicine and perfumes.
There are numerous factors that impact a plant’s development of terpenes. These may include temperature, humidity, the use of fertilizers, the type of soil, and more. Many cannabis strains have their unique terpene profile which will account for the strain’s unique scent and aftertaste.
The FDA and other regulatory agencies deem terpenes as safe. While research is very much at its infancy there are many indications that terpenes interact with our brain and may increase our dopamine activity, influence serotonin levels (similar to antidepressants) alongside other fun and positive effects.
At this point, if you are reading this post, I imagine there is no real need to delve into the psychoactive qualities of the cannabis plant. The notorious delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been intensely studied alongside its non-intoxicating counterpart – CBD. However, many of the other compounds found in cannabis, such as other cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids play a part in boosting its therapeutic effect. Well… let me rephrase that – in truth, we don’t quite know yet. There are early indications that specific combinations of terpenes (i.e. certain terpene profiles) interact with the psychoactive experience, but the scientific community has yet to produce statistically significant statements.
“Believers” (or marketers – I’ve yet to determine which is the more accurate definition) in the collusive effects of terpenes on the overall cannabis experience, hypothesize that terpenes play a key role in differentiating the effects of various cannabis strains. For example, Myrcene, a common terpene present in many strains, is said to produce a more relaxing experience while Terpinolene (another common terpene) brings about an uplifting experience.
Some stakeholders operating in the cannabis industry provide educational resources and emphasize the terpene profile within their products as a way of differentiating the taste and perceived effects of their products. When you hear strains described as ‘earthy’, ‘citrusy’, ‘spicy’, ‘woodsy’, and the likes – these typically refer to the terpene profile of each strain.
You might have encountered “terpene wheels” or “cannabis wheels”. These offer a visual representation of the presence of terpenes (admit it – that’s a hell of a marketing line… “the presence of terpenes”) in each strain to help marijuana users decide on their strain of choice based on their desired effect. Many brands offer versions of this “wheel” to market and differentiate their strains.
I generally equate people deep into the terpenes scene to wine aficionados who may describe the taste of wine in very picturesque ways. Indeed, it seems the chatter around terpene qualities promotes connoisseurship amongst cannabis enthusiasts.
The Entourage Effect is a theory that suggests that all compounds within cannabis work together and, when taken together, produce a better effect than when taking THC alone. This, by the way, relates to the overall compounds found in the cannabis plant, not only terpenes. An established example of this theory would be the heightened effect THC and CBD brings about when taken together.
Additionally, the fact that consuming pure, extracted THC provides an inferior therapeutic effect compared to consuming THC in conjunction with other substances present in cannabis has been somewhat established a while back. Many say a pure THC high that has “no specific character” or, in other words, is boring. Think about it like drinking distilled, water-diluted alcohol vs. drinking wine – sure both will get you drunk but one is definitely boring…
However, when we zero in on terpenes, the data for this Entourage Effect is slim and somewhat wishful, at this point in the game. If anything, I would treat is as ‘budtender wisdom’ more than hard facts.
A fairly recent research found that certain terpenes may boost the neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis. However, in order to transition from ‘beliefs’ to evidence more research is needed. The Entourage Effect, in regard to terpenes’ contribution to the psychoactive experience, is a mediocrely supported though definitely well-loved theory. It is worth emphasizing not all research conducted has found evidence to support it.
While the debate about the impact of terpenes on the psychoactive experience is yet to showcase hardcore evidence, there is no doubt that terpenes deliver an effect for the flavor and scent of the dish. If you have ever smelled any type of essential oil, you probably know they produce very distinct scents. Similarly, adding Limonene which exhibits a strong citrus taste or Pinene, a terpene the gives pine needled their distinctive smell, will deliver a different dish. While the culinary experience might not be vastly different – if perfection is what you seek, terpenes can surely help with the fine-tuning of your dish.
If you wish to include terpenes into your dish, you naturally need to identify a strain where your desired terpene will be dominant. The cooking process must be delicate as high temperatures will destroy some of the terpene content. When decarboxylating your specific terpene-profile-strain make sure to not overheat as terpenes have notoriously low boiling points, some as low as 315°F.
Proper storage of the plant is also essential. The strain should be stored in a cool and dark place, away from the sunlight, and be kept in a well-sealed container. Humidity is your enemy as mildew can easily form and therefore it is best to cook with recently purchased plants.
Extracts and other synthetic derivatives will likely have a very insignificant level of terpene due to the various crude industrial processes they have been through. In this case, you can always use extracted terpenes like the ones made by True Extracts. However, as I’m not a fan of processed ingredients I’ve never attempted using these products. From what I have read, the one thing to pay attention to is quantity. It is as if you are adding essential oils to your dish so the difference between one drop to two drops might be substantial.
Whether you buy the theory or not, the industry is definitely investing in its efficacy. Cannabis breeders have long been crossing plants to develop distinctive strains that claim to deliver different experiences. While there are no hardcore findings that unilaterally support the importance of terpenes to the psychoactive experience, early indications are convincing enough to promote more research into the phenomenon.
Personally, I am what you might call a ‘critical believer’. I feel marketers are slightly tainting the discussion for commercial purposes. Therefore, much of the data provided to consumers should be taken with a grain of salt. However, that aside, intuitively I believe it makes sense that terpenes do play a role in the experience and am excited to keep track and stay abreast of new discoveries.
If you like to know more about specific common terpenes in cannabis I found “Strainprint” website to be very informative.