New Study Says Terpenes Overrated

A new class of compounds may have more responsibility for cannabis strain variations than terpenes.

A new study claims the importance of terpenes in cannabis has been overemphasized.

The study, published in ACS Omega, noted that while cannabis consumers have been taught that there are two types of plants – indica and sativa – the reality is that modern cannabis is mostly a hybrid.

In addition, the terpene profile remained remarkably similar across various cannabis strains, the researchers said, indicating only a minor contribution to the varieties. The team, led by Iain Oswald, principal scientist for Abstrax Tech, analyzed 31 different rosin cannabis extracts to reach their conclusions.

“Our sensory analysis revealed highly divergent aroma characteristics for many samples that we broke down into three primary classes: sweet exotic, prototypical, and savory exotic,” the authors wrote. “We found that varieties across both sweet and savory exotic classes often have very similar terpene profiles, indicating that they are not the driving force behind the unique aromatic differences.”

The study stated that terpenes are generally classified into three varieties:

  • Terpinolene/ß-myrcene
  • D-(+)-limonene/ß-caryophyllene
  • ß-myrcene/pinene.

But the result of the terpene profile isn’t that clear cut.

For example, the study found that “Dogwalker OG, which possesses a skunky and woody aroma, was found in the same D-(+)-limonene/ß-caryophyllene cluster as Tropicana Cookies, which possesses an intense citrus and tropical aroma. Purple Punch, which possesses a sweet, grape-like scent, was also found in this cluster.”

The study also noted that aroma is subjective to the consumer.

New Source for Cannabis Aroma

So what’s behind these results?

The researchers used “detailed chemical analysis using two-dimensional gas chromatography” to reveal that minor, nonterpenoid compounds appear to be responsible.

“While found in low concentration, often accounting for less than 0.05% of the mass of the samples, their odor impact can be substantial,” the study said.

In other words, these substances are small but powerful.

More specifically, the study identified volatile sulfur compounds that generate different aromas. One family resulted in a skunky, gas-like aroma, while another unique class produced “tropical nuances.”

The study said, “Our results yield a more complete understanding of the unique aromas that cannabis produces and help establish these nonterpenoid compounds as an important part of the phytochemistry of cannabis.”

What it Means for Terpenes

While the discovery that terpenes have less influence than originally thought won’t affect the plant, it could have ramifications for cannabis marketing. Consumers have been educated to believe that these terpenes are behind various strain profiles.

Now that science says that isn’t the case, it could affect product development, packaging, and even testing protocols.

At the same time, the introduction of this new class of compounds could present a wholly new marketing opportunity.

The first might be to rename them. “Terpenes” has a much better ring than 3-mercaptohexanol.

Debra Borchardt

Debra Borchardt is the Co-Founder, and Executive Editor of GMR. She has covered the cannabis industry for several years at Forbes, Seeking Alpha and TheStreet. Prior to becoming a financial journalist, Debra was a Vice President at Bear Stearns where she held a Series 7 and Registered Investment Advisor license. Debra has a Master's degree in Business Journalism from New York University.

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