Welcome to the Talking Terpenes: Behind the Blends educational series. This collection of articles explores the science and biochemistry of one of the most common types of molecules in nature, terpenes. Each month, two new articles will be released that further explore the nuanced characteristics, including abundant medicinal benefits, offered by terpenes and—more specifically—terpene blends.
The floral aroma of lavender, musky undertones of sandalwood, and minty qualities of rosemary are produced by a special class of phytomolecule1 called terpenes. Also referred to as isoprenoids and terpenoids in research literature, modern science has revealed that these organic chemical compounds do much more than simply produce fragrances found attractive by humans.
In addition to aroma, research has revealed that terpenes possess significant wellness properties. Commercial applications of these volatile chemicals encompasses a prominent role as flavor and aroma agents in the food and cosmetics industries, including infusion into popular beverages such as beer and energy drinks. Terpenes are also employed by the pharmaceutical industry for their various medicinal benefits (more about this below).
Terpenes have recently gained significant media attention due to their important role in a variety of emerging industries, including cannabis, hemp, and their use in products featuring the phytocannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD). Research has shown that many of the benefits of products derived from the cannabis plant are partly or entirely the results of the biochemical influence of terpenes.
Discovered in the 1880s by German chemist Otto Wallach, terpenes were once believed to merely produce odor. Research has revealed more than 40,000 varieties of these aromatic compounds that are produced by about 20,000 plant species, including cannabis and hemp. Despite their relatively recent discovery by the world of science, terpenes have been employed in a variety of applications since the time of ancient Egypt.2
From an evolutionary perspective, terpenes serve the functions of protecting plants by deterring pests and predators and also attracting pollinating insects in an effort to propagate the species. Terpenes also provide environmental protection, including shielding plants from UV light. In addition, terpenes are the biosynthetic source of other beneficial phytomolecules, including popular cannabinoids such as CBD, cannabigerol (CBG), and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Native vs. Botanical vs. Synthetic Sources
Terpenes are derived from three primary sources: 1) Natively from cannabis or hemp plants, 2) thousands of botanical sources other than cannabis or hemp, and 3) synthetic production, which is performed in an industrial laboratory setting. Depending on the particular terpene in consideration and the volume desired, all three approaches are commonly employed. To learn more about native, botanical, and synthetic terpenes, see the Extract Consultants article “The Benefits of Botanically-Derived Terpenes.”
Much peer-reviewed research regarding the wellness efficacy delivered by terpenes has been conducted over the past several decades. This research has revealed many wellness benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antianxiety, anticancer, and other efficacies that may benefit a wide range of patient populations. These benefits will be explored in greater detail in this series.
Major vs. Minor Terpenes
From the perspective of their production by cannabis/hemp3, two categories of terpenes exist: Major and minor. Major terpenes, also called primary terpenes, are produced in significantly greater quantities by cannabis/hemp than minor, or secondary, varieties.
Major terpenes include geraniol, humulene, limonene, linalool, myrcene, ocimene, and pinene. Myrcene is the most common terpene produced by cannabis/hemp, while pinene is the most prevalent throughout nature. Minor terpenes, typically found in trace amounts in native sources, include borneol, camphor, carene, menthol, and phytol.
No terpenes have been identified that are exclusive to cannabis/hemp. Thus, common terpenes such as myrcene, humulene, and pinene are produced by dozens—and sometimes hundreds—of different plant species. The cannabis/hemp genome (DNA) contains about 200 types of terpenes, a dozen or so of which manifest in a particular plant.
Humulene, for example, is produced by basil, cannabis, clove, ginseng, hops, and sage (among other species). Pinene, abundant in some cultivars (strains) of cannabis and hemp, is the dominant terpene produced by conifers and pine trees.
Beneficial Properties of Terpenes
Terpenes have for decades been employed as food additives due to their pronounced aroma and flavor characteristics. As concentrated isolates, some terpenes are used as solvents and cleaners. The pharmaceutical industry employs these common molecules for a variety of reasons, particularly their antiallergenic, antibiotic, anticancer, and antimicrobial properties.
According to the 2013 book Natural Products, the range of medicinal benefits delivered by terpenes that has been discovered through laboratory and clinical research is wide. “Important therapeutic uses of terpenoids include antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, antihyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidants, antiparasitic, immunomodulatory, and as a skin permeation enhancer,”4 reported the book’s authors.
Terpene Profiles, Blends, & Isolates
In nature, terpenes do not occur in isolation. Individual plants produce a variety of types of these molecules that, together, form what is called a terpene profile. This profile lends a characteristic and unique fragrance and set of medicinal properties to a particular sample of cannabis/hemp. For example, lavender’s distinctive and sometimes intense fragrance, frequently described as sweet and spicy, results from a unique mix of terpenes that is dominated by linalool.
A profile features a particular group of terpenes in various ratios to one another. For example, if a specific cultivar of cannabis produces both pinene and myrcene, but results in 800 percent more of the latter than the former, its fragrance and wellness benefits will be quite different than if the ratios of the terpenes were changed or inverted.
Terpene profiles that occur naturally within the plant world can be replicated in commercial products in the form of a terpene blend. Terpene blends often mimic the profiles produced by cannabis and can feature specific ratios of terpenes, achieving accurate aroma, flavor, and medicinal goals. Terpene blends also offer the advantages of consistency and repeatability, two characteristics required by nearly all industrial and pharmaceutical applications.
In addition, terpene blends take advantage of a popular theory regarding the medicinal efficacy of terpenes that stipulates that unique benefits result when particular groups of terpenes, available in certain ratios, are present (more below).
The opposite of a terpene blend is an isolate, which is a concentrate comprised mostly or solely of a single terpene. Isolates are commonly employed as ingredients in consumer and industrial products.
Entourage Effect & Synergy
Researchers have learned that the various terpenes that form a particular profile exhibit a synergistic interplay that has been dubbed the entourage effect. Formally a theory (until more research data can prove its hypothesis), the entourage effect proposes the notion that terpenes and other molecules (such as cannabinoids and flavonoids) may modify the effects of one another and produce wholly unique efficacies, especially when present in particular groups and specific ratios.
The entourage effect embraces the observation that a group of wellness molecules, such as terpenes or cannabinoids, produces a collective benefit that is greater and qualitatively different than the mere sum of efficacies of the individual molecules.
The term entourage effect was coined in 1998 by a group of Israeli researchers. This pioneering collection of scientists, led by Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat, first published its findings as a groundbreaking research study in the European Journal of Pharmacology.
Terpenes are among the most interesting and potentially valuable chemical compounds found in nature. With tens of thousands of types produced by more than 20,000 plant species, these aromatic molecules can be derived from botanical sources such as cannabis/hemp or synthesized in laboratory environments to produce larger quantities (sometimes involving lower expense per unit than botanical sources).
The recent U.S. federal legalization of hemp, more than ten state-level adult use cannabis laws, and federal cannabis adult use legalization in a number of nations (including Canada and Uruguay) have together created renewed consumer and commercial interest in terpenes. Their use as wellness supplements, in medicinal therapies, and for industrial applications is expanding rapidly.
To learn more about terpenes and the medicinal benefits and other qualities of terpene blends, subscribe to Extract Consultants’ Talking Terpenes—Behind the Blends educational series today!
1 Phytomolecules are molecules and chemical compounds derived from plant sources.
2 Biotechnology and Molecular Biology Reviews Vol. 3 (1), pp. 001-007, February 2008 here.
3 Cannabis is legally categorized as hemp that contains more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in weight by volume (the standard in the European Union is 0.2% THC).
4 Brahmkshatriya P.P., Brahmkshatriya P.S. (2013) Terpenes: Chemistry, Biological Role, and Therapeutic Applications. In: Ramawat K., Mérillon JM. (eds) Natural Products. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-22144-6_120
About the Author
Curt Robbins is a technical writer, instructional designer, and lecturer who has been developing science-based educational and training content for Fortune 200 enterprise companies for more than 30 years. He is Director of Course Development at Higher Learning LV™ in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Robbins began writing about the biochemistry and science of the various wellness molecules produced by plants such as hemp in 2003. He has since developed more than 600 educational articles about hemp and its health components—including terpenes, cannabinoids, flavonoids, and the human endocannabinoid system.