Some soups can smell rich and meaty, while others can be delicate with herbal notes.
If you can tell the difference between a goulash and a gazpacho, excellent! Your senses of smell and taste are working.
What you’re sensing in meals, fruits, flowers, and even cleaning products are terpenes.
These organic compounds that give plants flavour and smell (and the reason you can tell a difference between a coconut and a raspberry) are present in cannabis flowers, too.
So let’s dive into what terpenes really are, how they behave, and how you can make informed decisions about terpene profiles when buying and consuming medical cannabis.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes (pronounced tur-peens), or terpenoids, are aromatic metabolites found in the oils of all plants.
There are more than 20,000 terpenes in existence and at least 100 produced by the Cannabis plant. Terpenoid production evolved over time in plants, including cannabis, to attract pollinators and to act as defense compounds.
Female cannabis plants produce glandular trichomes, which are glands that look like small hairs or growths that protrude from the flowers and leaves. Trichomes house crucial compounds, including cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD), flavonoids, and terpenes.
When plants are handled delicately and the trichomes remain intact throughout collection and processing, you end up with excellent cannabis with strong and distinct flavours, colours, and smells.
To humans, terpenes act as natural guides to discovering which cannabis strains our endocannabinoid system is most likely to enjoy and gain a benefit from.
Terpene production is largely governed by abiotic factors such as temperature, humidity, and light intensity (think about the fragrant scents of flowers at night time), and these factors are synthesized in response to stress.
This is why medical cannabis licensed producers put so much emphasis on standardizing the growing conditions for their medical strains.
Terpenes or terpenoids?
Terpenes and terpenoids are definitely related.
Terpenes can be considered the natural “on-the-growing-plant” version of terpenoids – which are transformed by drying and curing the cannabis flower. The drying process and conditions change the way the molecules transform (and taste) at the end of the day.
Terpenoids are used constantly outside of cannabis (and outside of plants) for their aromatic qualities: it’s how we create perfumes, essential oils, and spices.
More and more research is indicating that terpenoids play a significant role in the medicinal effects of cannabinoids.
When considering which cannabis strain to purchase, it’s helpful to start narrowing down your options like so:
- How do you generally want to feel (indica or sativa)?
- Are you looking more for a psychotropic high or for healing and calming (THC:CBD)?
- What flavours do you like/respond to (terpenes)?
- Are you looking more for a psychotropic high or for healing and calming (THC:CBD)?
All these questions come down to – how do you want to feel after consuming cannabis? These are just guideposts along the way to help you decide what you enjoy, prefer, and what your body responds best to.
Tip: Consider terpenes a connoisseurs’ approach to cannabis, in the same way that a wine lover would consider the blackcurrant notes in a Chilean merlot versus the crisp citrus of an unoaked Californian chardonnay.
Before modern research on cannabis and terpenes was conducted and the market grew to include licensed producers and legal varieties, many people decided on cannabis based on the typical characteristics and effects of indicas and sativas.
New research has now shown that terpenes significantly influence the flavour and smell of buds, but can also amp up, change, or lower the intensity and duration of effects for strains.
Terpenes & the entourage effect
Several studies (some from as early as the 1980s) have shown that terpenes work together to help cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) pass through the bloodstream easier and “lower” the blood-to-brain barrier.
Basically, you feel more or less of the effects of a strain based on the terpenes found in it.
Not only that, but because terpenes have their own medicinal effects (apart from providing the tastes and smells of cannabis), they work together to amp up or chill out the dominant effects of the other cannabinoids. This is called the “entourage effect” because of the way the different components can work together, play off each other, and enhance or downplay the end effects.
If cannabinoids and terpenes are all together and working towards the same goal, you’ll notice stronger effects. If they’re counterbalancing each other (as they would in a group), the effect on the whole is muted.
By using terpenes to modulate the adverse effects of other cannabinoids, producers are now able to create super strains of cannabis that are laser-focused on creating the best experience possible for as many patients as possible.
Whether that means tempering a THC “high” with anti-anxiety or anti-inflammatory properties of a particular terpene, or doubling the anti-depressant properties of a CBD-rich strain, the opportunities for medicinal uses are extensive. However, research in this area is still ongoing, and the industry is looking forward to learning more about how terpenes function singularly as well as together in different strains.
For example, the popular terpene myrcene is known for lowering the resistance across the blood-to-brain barrier, which speeds up the effects of the prominent cannabinoids. If myrcene was present in a THC-rich strain, it would lessen the time between consumption and the psychotropic aftereffect. (It also increases the maximum saturation level for cannabis and thus expands the extent of the effects on your endocannabinoid system, but more on that in our next article.)
How terpenes work in the body
As we’ve mentioned, terpenes have their own effects apart from their relationship with cannabinoids, including inhibiting serotonin uptake and enhancing norepinephrine activity (acting as antidepressants), increasing dopamine (regulating emotions and pleasure experiences), and augmenting GABA (the “downer” neurotransmitter associated with relaxing effects).
More research needs to be done about the compounded therapeutic effect of terpenes with cannabinoids on the mind, emotions, and behavior of consumers.
Currently, the accepted knowledge is that terpenes compound or lighten the effects of cannabinoids THC and CBD (among others) by binding to endocannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters and imitating compounds our bodies naturally produce (to regulate emotions, weight, health, etc). The FDA and other agencies have recognized terpenes as safe, but how could they not? They’d have to outlaw tomatoes and cinnamon if terpenes weren’t legal.
With research, cannabis scientists, growers, and enthusiasts are starting to tailor strains to use terpenes to balance the negative effects of cannabinoids – such as pinene balancing the short-term memory loss from high concentrations of THC.
Examples of terpenes found in cannabis
- Pinene (pine): Pinene is the most common terpene in the world, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also found in orange peels, pine needles, basil, and parsley. It’s been known to counter short-term memory loss from THC, improve airflow to your lungs, and promote alertness.
- Myrcene (earthy, musky, fruity): Myrcene can be found in mangoes, hops, thyme, lemongrass, and basil, and is the most commonly found terpene in cannabis. It can compose up to 50 percent of a cannabis plant’s terpenes. Myrcene has also been shown to be useful as an anti-inflammatory, a sedative, and a muscle relaxer. Many indica strains have high levels of myrcene, which contribute to the tired/stoned feeling (if higher than 0.5% myrcene in a strain, it creates the “couch-lock” feeling in users).
- Limonene (citrus): Like its name suggests, limonene smells like lemons, oranges, mandarins, limes, and grapefruits. It’s also – interestingly enough – probably found in your favourite cleaning products or perfumes because of its’ citrusy scent. It’s been shown to elevate mood, relieve stress, and has antifungal and antibacterial properties to boot. It also improves absorption of other terpenes and chemicals through the skin, which makes it great in strains that you use for tinctures, ointments, and other topicals.
- Humulene (hoppy, earthy): Humulene is found in hops, coriander, cloves, and basil. It’s best known for its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to suppress appetite (while many other strains only increase appetite).
- Linalool (floral, spicy): Linalool is found in flowers and spices like lavender and coriander, and is widely known for its stress-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and anti-depressant effects. The linalool terpene balances out the anxious side effects of THC, which makes it a useful treatment of both anxiety and psychosis. Some studies also suggest that linalool can boost the immune system and significantly reduce lung inflammation.
- Caryophyllene (peppery, spicy): Caryophyllene is found in thai basils, cloves, cinnamon leaves and black pepper. Studies show that it can help treat anxiety, depression, and act as an anti-inflammatory, which sounds like a big job to handle for one small terpene.
- Terpinolene (smoky + woodsy): Terpinolene can be found in sage and rosemary, and has slightly sedative, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. It’s also been found to depress your central nervous system, and therefore induce drowsiness and reduce excitement or anxiety.
Flavonoids vs. terpenes
Flavonoids sound like flavors… but they’re actually the color-giving nutrients in living things. They’re also one of the largest nutrient families known to scientists at over 6,000 members.
Around 20 of these compounds have been identified in the cannabis plant, which is great because they’re also known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits.
Flavonoids are what gives cannabis plants a purple or brighter green color. Further research is needed to understand the role flavonoids can play for therapeutic cannabis treatments, but the research on terpenes is much further along.
Cooking with cannabis terpenes
When you cook at home, you don’t just throw anything in a pot and hope it turns out okay, right?
You look for recipes because pairing smells, tastes, and textures is important for the final experience. Then you go to the grocery store and look for that hot red, greenhouse-smelling on-the-vine tomato. The mango that smells luscious and almost too sweet. The cinnamon that’s spicy and warming.
Cooking with cannabis requires you to understand the different notes (terpenes) in strains. Controlling the temperature of any cannabis you cook is crucial, especially so when thinking about terpenes, because terpenes are extremely sensitive to heat and can be burned by overheating.
Our recommendation is to research your temperatures and avoid adding cannabis at the very beginning of a cooking process so you don’t burn valuable terpenes. Add your cannabis at the end of your cook instead. Since terpenes volatilize at temperatures similar to cannabinoids, you should cook under 100 degrees Celsius.
Whether you’re using cannabis oil, butter, a drink, or just vaping alongside your meal, you should find a strain with a complementary or similar flavour to your planned meal. Vaping along with eating lets the terpene flavours shine through without burning them off – and you can customize which terpenes you inhale by changing the temperature!
Making a tomato mozzarella salad and are missing a little basil? Look for a strain heavy on myrcene.
Want to intensify the flavour of your lemon salmon dish? Add a strain high in the terpene limonene to a dressing or butter.
And a berry cheesecake could pair nicely with a super floral linalool-heavy strain that you vape as you eat.
Your licensed producer’s customer service department should be able to recommend strains with high levels of terpenes (2-4%) to begin your exploration with cooking with cannabis (with a focus on pairing terpenes).
At the end of the day, it’s totally up to you how you wish to think about terpenes when you cook with cannabis – whether complementary or similar. As long as you remember that consuming cannabis high in THC in particular will only enhance your experience of the food pairings you’ve created.
Reminders about terpenes
Licensed Canadian producers aren’t forced to distinguish between terpenes, but many do for the sake of their client experience. Any customer support person at a licensed producer should be able to answer your questions about the most prominent notes in a strain. But the most helpful agent is always going to be your nose when determining which terpenes and which strains smell the best to you.
Key point to remember: terpenes are to cannabis like “notes” are to wine.