Synthetic terpenes: industry short-cut to olfactory buzz

Posted on December 19th, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , .

cannabisTerpenes, the chemical compounds that give your herb its distinctive smell and flavor, are increasingly recognized as a vital part of the overall cannabis experience. But with the growing popularity of vape pens and concentrates, industry is now adding terpenes to products in an effort to recreate that whole-flower feel. These may come from plants other than cannabis—and some may even be synthetic.

There is a growing understading that the cannabis flower contains a bouquet of natural chemicals that act in combination to produce an altered state of consciousness in the user that can be unique to each strain—often called the "entourage effect." In addition to cannabinoids, most famously the psychoactive THC, these include terpenes—the organic compounds that give each strain its unique aroma and flavor.

Terpenes are found in many plants—not just cannabis. Often the same ones found in common (and legal) herbs and flowers are also in cannabis buds. These include linalool, the chemical that makes lavender smell like lavender, and limonene, found in citrus fruits. Pinene is found in conifers—the key chemical in that Christmas tree smell so associated with this time of year. Caryophyllene is found in such herbs and spices as cloves, basil, oregano and rosemary—as well as hops and cannabis.

More than 100 terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant. You appreciate them every time you put a bud to your nose to admire the smell before breaking it up and smoking it. But experts now believe that terpenes contribute to the psychoactive aspect of the cannabis experience, as well as the strictly aesthetic.

For instance, as one account on strain review website states: "Linalool hydrocarbons not only make Amnesia Haze smell like an orange, but can also help treat sleeping disorders—or at least explains why it makes you drowsier than other strains."

The account also addresses the folklore that you should eat a mango before smoking cannabis. "Mangoes contain the most common terpene, Myrcene, and works with your pot's THC content to create a distinctive and sometimes 'enhanced' high." One of the most common terpenes in cannabis, myrcene is also found in bay leaves and lemongrass.

Fooling Mother Nature
The cannabis industry is now "seeing an influx in products with high terpene content like vape/oil cartridges, distillate and other various concentrates." So states a recent account on Colorado Pot Guide. The write-up draws a distinction between three classes of terpenes: cannabis-derived, "plant-derived" (meaning plants other than cannabis, which is of course a plant), and synthetic.

The plant-derived kind can be found in essential oil extracted from flowers or fruits—such as those used by vape company DaVinci, which specializes in providing a variety of flavors.

Synthetic terpenes, on the other hand, "are produced in a lab by chemical manipulation and blending." Concocting such synthetic analogs enables producers to design any desired "perfect terpene profile." But there is an experimental aspect to this: "The technology is still being developed and new products are still being created as we gain a better understanding about terpenes, their influence and interaction with one another." The report concludes: "[W]e'd suggest straying away from them."

And it adds the old advice of caveat emptor—let the buyer beware: "Now that you know more, pay attention to the products you’re buying. Does it have natural or synthetic terpenes? Are essential oils and plant-based compounds being added to the final product?"

Some consumers may want that. A recent account on Mashable quotes Joe Edwards, vice president of the Colorado startup Yofumo, which has been experimenting with various terpene combinations. He said he was able to make a special plum-flavored cannabis for his grandmother, who uses medicinally to treat her arthritis but doesn't like the smell of most varieties. "My grandmother has no interest in Skunk No. 1," he said.

Quest for the 'whole-flower experience'
There is more of an imperative to resort to synthetic terpenes as methods of imbibing cannabis change. "What’s the deal with flavored vape cartridges?" asks Seattle-based Avitas Cannabis company on its blog.

The explanation makes clear that something is lost when a chemical is isolated: "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 compounds in a natural cannabis flower bud that lead to the 'entourage effect' of each strain's specific flavor, aroma and 'high'."

But with the new methods, there is often a need to put back what is eliminated from the final product: "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... 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."

Avitas pledges that the company "never uses any cutting agents in our extracts and only 100% cannabis-derived terpenes that we carefully preserve for each batch." But other companies presumably do use synthetic terpenes.

Not dangerous, but also not the real thing
Terpenes and Testing Magazine, a trade publication devoted to this niche industry, writes: "The easiest way to synthetically recreate the terpene profile of a given cannabis variety is to quantify its terpene content analytically and then individually add terpenes together to create a flavor Master Mix." A mass spectrometer is typically used to map a given strain's terpene profile so it can then be mimicked synthetically.

Another article in Terpenes and Testing discusses "The Dangers of Synthetic Cannabinoids"—those used in faux-marijuana products like K2, about which there has been much media hysteria. "Synthetic cannabinoids are not the same as a plant derived cannabinoid," the article states. "They are chemical analogs that bind to our endocannabinoid receptors. The problem is that these designer drugs can hit our receptors at astronomically larger quantities than regular cannabis."

Synthetic cannabinoids are playing with fire—or, in less metaphorical terms, with the human endocannabinoid system. Synthetic terpenes hold no such dangers. But, as with the recent controversy about CBD in hops, it's important to maintain a distinction between what is naturally in a plant and what industrial processes may put into a plant product.

The science probably has a long way to go before it can really replicate the whole-flower experience—if it ever gets there at all.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Photo by Drome

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