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Terpene Additives: Examining the Safety and Efficacy of Terpenes in Cannabis Extracts

 July 02, 2023  Written by Emma Chasen
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What are terpenes?

Everybody has interacted with terpenes in one form or another. If you’ve ever cleaned the house, washed your face, sniffed a flower, or walked outside, you have unknowingly ingested them.

Terpenes are small, aromatic compounds found in all plants and even some insects. They give plants their smell and also have associated therapeutic properties. And in the world of cannabis, they're kind of a big deal. 

Research scientists believe that terpenes in cannabis are most likely responsible for the varying effects on mood and the therapeutic potential that different cannabis varieties may exhibit. Cannabis consumers want the terps — not only for enhanced aroma but also for enhanced effect.

Manufacturers, responding to consumer demand, have now made it common practice to add them to edibles, concentrates, and extracts so that they may have greater appeal to consumers. However, not all of them are created equal, nor are they always synonymous with better effects.

What does it mean to have "added terpenes"?

When vetting products that have “added terpenes” ask the following questions: Where did the additives come from — synthetic, botanical, or cannabis? How were they extracted? What solvent are they suspended in? What concentrations exist in the product? 

Additives typically come from one of three sources: cannabis, botanical (fruits and/or other plants), or synthetic aka made in a laboratory setting. In the cannabis market, most of them are added to enhance concentrates and extracts are from botanical sources.

For example, a common one in cannabis - limonene - is also abundantly found in the rinds of citrus fruits. Extraction technicians can extract limonene from citrus fruits. Most often, they are removed from their botanical sources by a process called steam distillation. 

How are terpenes added to cannabis products?

Distillation is the evaporation and subsequent condensation of a liquid to produce concentrated pieces of the original plant material’s composition. Distillation produces essential oil as well as hydrosol.

Many options that are sold on the market are hydrosols: aromatic “floral” waters that contain many different compounds — and very few of them are actual terpenes. It is important to note that hydrosols are unfit for human consumption via inhalation.

Steam distillation uses the heating and condensation of water to distill essential oil and hydrosol from plant material. Because this process uses heat, the terpenes are often thermally degraded. They're incredibly volatile compounds, easily evaporate, and are reactive even at low temperatures.

The hot steam used in distillation will decompose them and may even lead to the creation of new compounds in the process, such as the highly reactive aldehydes and esters. Aldehydes and esters are organic compounds that are often aromatic and may be mistaken for terpenes because of their smell. 

This is all to say that when you extract them with heat, you degrade them. Therefore, the oil cells present in distilled oils and hydrosols do not carry the same compounds as oil cells present in the original plant material. This means that the effects of these extracts will differ from their associated properties observed when they are consumed in the plant material. 

How to ingest terpene extractions safely

Despite the thermal degradation, extractions sold on the market do contain concentrated compounds like aldehydes, esters, and phenols. At this point, we don’t have enough research to conclusively state that consuming these compounds, especially via inhalation, in such high concentrations, is safe. 

A 2017 study found that when they were exposed to the temperatures needed to ‘dab’, they transformed into harmful compounds, such as the carcinogenic compound benzene. These research findings suggest a cause for concern when adding them to concentrates and extracts designed to be heated and inhaled.

 

Terpenes are important to the therapeutic potential of cannabis.

They not only have an impact on the aroma of varieties but can also have a physiological impact as well as share synergistic potential with cannabinoids.

However, the thermal extractions from botanical sources, cannabis and otherwise, create relics of the original compounds. These extracts may be unhealthy and even dangerous when heated at such high temperatures and inhaled

To have a cannabis experience that is terpene-centric, try consuming cannabis flowers in a dry plant vaporizer programmed to the lowest temperature setting. This will allow you to gently heat and inhale terpenes in their original form and concentrations, reaping the therapeutic and aromatic benefits of the flower. 

The next time you assess a cannabis vape pen or a cannabis concentrate intended for inhalation, look for the language “added terpenes” and inquire as to their origin. While marketing may have us believe that a higher concentration of terpenes equates to better quality, it could mean the opposite. 

For more information on this topic, listen to this episode from the Periodic Effects podcast. 

Please note that this blog is not to be considered medical advice. Always consult your physician for more information and/or questions related to your specific medical history.

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