Is there a difference between the terpenes in cannabis and the terpenes in your food?
Earlier this year we took on a fantastic new vendor of high end concentrates, and during their first delivery, I asked their sales person whether they use cannabis terpenes or food grade terpenes. Though it was an honest and straightforward question in my mind, their confusingly snarky response came as a surprise to me: “Oh man, anyone who asks that question obviously has no idea what they’re talking about. They’re the same thing. If you ask a terpene where he’s from, he’ll say, ‘I don’t know, man, I’m just a terpene.’” Retaining my oh-so-professional demeanor, I hid my clenched teeth behind a smile. “Seeing as I did just ask that question,” I replied, "clearly I have no idea what I'm talking about. Would you be so kind as to educate me?” The response was the same thing I’ve heard from extractors using food grade terpenes for years now: that terpenes have the same chemical structure no matter what plant they’re extracted from, and they modulate THC the exact same way. This means that the myrcene in mangoes is the same as the myrcene in cannabis, the limonene in oranges is the same as the limonene in weed, and so on.
…but if it’s really that simple, why do many regular dabbers like myself have such strong feelings against food terpenes? Are we missing out? Is it really just a problem of perception? My goal with this article is to weigh different perspectives and attempt to answer the question of whether or not concentrates containing food-derived terpenes are as good as dabs with only cannabis-derived terpenes. Our findings may surprise you.
Let’s start off by discussing consumer criticisms of adding food-derived terpenes to concentrates. For perspective, food terpenes are completely legal and have been used in all types of everyday products including flavorings and cosmetics for decades; you could click away from this article and buy 1000ml of myrcene and 32 fl oz of limonene from Amazon right now. From my own personal experiences, my issues with extracts containing food-derived terpenes have been a) they tend to taste “artificial” and overly sweet, b) the effects are often underwhelming compared to other extracts, and c) they’re not from my beloved cannabis plant, so I frankly have no interest or loyalty to food terps. It’s kind of a “it wasn't broken, so stop trying to fix it” sort of situation to me; we’re living in the golden age of extracts and I don’t see the need to add extraneous chemicals to an already effective and flavorful product.
To address my first critique with regards to the flavor, we reached out to James Hull from Fairwinds Manufacturing. One of our vendors, Fairwinds is known for developing cutting-edge cannabis products ranging from capsules, topicals, tinctures, and FECO (full extract cannabis oil). "Many processors use 'natural flavor' concentrates (commonly used in e-cigarettes),” he said, "which contain a mix of terpenes and other volatile (evaporatable) flavor components. Natural blueberry flavor contains chemicals like isoamyl butyrate, which is technically not a terpene it is an ester.” Makes sense. So that weird cotton candy taste I get from blueberry-flavored distillate (for example) has nothing to do with the food terps themselves? "The cotton candy taste is likely maltol,” said Hull, "which is added to flavor mixes to impart a sweet aroma. So technically those ‘artificial' tastes are coming from things other than food-grade terpenes.”
Alright then, considering I’m not a chemist and didn’t know what isoamyl butyrate and maltol were in the first place, I concede that my first critique of food-derived terpenes may be invalid. It seems that my personal issue is with artificial flavoring then, not food terps themselves. This sentiment is echoed by Jeff Church, an extraction specialist at Puffin Farm who produces raw CO2 that tests as high as 26% [cannabis] terpenes: “it’s definitely not something that I want to consume myself,” he said of flavored extracts in a 2016 Ganjapreneur podcast interview,"[but] I think that there’s a big market out there for… all these different fruit flavors and things like that."
He’s right; there’s definitely a market for flavored oils, but many customers will likely be turned off by the idea as well. To use one of my famous alcohol analogies, if you’re a whiskey connoisseur then you probably aren’t a huge fan of Fireball cinnamon-flavored whiskey. I mean, it’s fine— maybe you’ll drink some Fireball when you’re in a social setting and a friend offers it— but you probably view it as an abomination of your favorite beverage and never seek it out on your own. As another example, maybe a cigarette smoker enjoys the occasional apple-flavored hookah with friends, but they probably don’t want to smoke fruit-flavored cigarettes on their own time.
My second critique of food terps is that I perceive them to be less effective than cannabis-derived terpenes. To phrase that differently, I don’t feel that concentrates I’ve had in the past with added terpenes (often accompanied by that “artificial” flavor) were noticeably better than extracts with no additives, and furthermore, I perceived those dabs with food terpenes to be inferior. Seeing as my only frame of reference has been fruit-flavored distillate— which I historically find to be boring (unless it’s smeared on on a joint)— I can acknowledge that perhaps I’ve mistakenly applied my thoughts on distillate to food grade terpenes. Until I sample some distillate with food-derived terpenes that doesn’t have that artificial maltol flavor, I feel that it’s only fair that I retract this criticism of food terpenes. For those keeping score at home, both of my criticisms thus far have been invalidated.
The third critique I hold is probably the most revealing in terms of my biases; I’m not inclined to defend (or even care about) terpenes that aren’t from my beloved marijuana plant. Why should I? "An important point when talking about terpenes,” says Hull, "is the fact that all those terpene studies referenced on Leafly.com and other websites are not based on cannabis. People posting those studies have made the connection themselves that cannabis can have those measured effects because it contains those terpenes. But the effect of terpenes from cannabis have not been studied directly, and the purported effects that have made terpenes popular have only been observed in 'food-grade terpenes.’” Well, color me humbled. That’s a damn good point. It’s such a good point that it actually makes me re-think everything I’ve ever read and written about cannabis terpenes. Damn. All 3 of my previously-held critiques about food terpenes have been addressed and debunked. I feel so naked and ashamed. I feel like I need a dab.
So what have we learned? We re-affirmed what the extraction techs have been saying for years (that food terpenes have the same chemical structure and modulate THC the same way as cannabis terpenes), we found out that other additives in natural flavorings including isoamyl butyrate and maltol contribute to the “artificial” sweet taste of some distillates (not the terpenes themselves), and most importantly, we were reminded that all of the studies about terpenes up to this point are about food derived terps, so we can’t regurgitate facts from those studies while simultaneously turning our noses up at anything containing food grade terpenes.
We hope that this has been as enlightening for you to read as it was for us to research. Artificial flavoring is still a matter of preference, but terps are terps no matter where they’re from.
Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 1.5 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10 years of being a super picky medical patient.