Terpenes: Flavor Profiles and Effects

To borrow some hip lingo from the past, the cool cannabis kids will tell you that THC is no longer where it’s at.

Even if many growers and smokers of the past (and maybe a few in present day) love boosting the THC potency so you’ll hopefully have a better, stronger experience, the abundance of choices, flavors and strains in legal marketplaces today means that THC is only one factor in deciding what cannabis you should choose.

In fact, some say a strain that’s too potent and too high in THC will make you miss out on some of the more subtle flavors, aromas and other elements present in well-crafted cannabis. It may not knock your socks off, but it makes you feel good, whether you’re partaking for medical or recreational use, with your friends or solo. The contrast is sometimes compared to shopping for liquor purely based on the highest alcohol percentage, rather than enjoying a custom cocktail, a limited-edition craft beer, or a smooth wine that goes well with your meal and has tasty flavors.

So, if THC is not the main number to chase, what factors should you be looking for?

Many say terpenes. These naturally occurring compounds found in the trichomes of the cannabis plant are responsible for every strain’s unique aroma, flavor, coloring, and other properties.

From a purely biological perspective, terpenes are in all plants, not just cannabis. These genetic profiles control the coloring, scent, size, and other characteristics of flowers. They are what make some plants more attractive or less attractive to bees or other insects.

Terpenes distinguish types of fruit, like apples and oranges, as well as subsets of certain fruits (all the types of limes vs. all the types of lemons vs. all the types of oranges.) They also are extracted into certain consumer products, such as floral hand soap, air fresheners, or citrus floor cleaner. Even the popularity of essential oils and aromatherapy is based on terpene profiles that do everything from help your energy to aid your immune system to make your kitchen smell good.

As more and more people explore the intricacies of cannabis, there are greater opportunities to identify the different terpenes that make up certain strains. These can even be engineered or extracted during processing to add to concentrates, live resin, and other products to provide the same quantity and experience each time. This can be great for consumers: they will learn that a certain favorite brand that uses the same terpene profiles will remain consistent, and they can also shop for certain traits: something with a specific combination of terpenes may be enjoyable to partake as well as help them sleep better or be more creative.

Types of Terpenes

Though there are thousands of terpenes in the botanical kingdom, some are more common in cannabis plants as well as in larger amounts. These include:

  • Myrcene. It’s often found in cannabis and in mangoes, and some longtime partakers swear that having a mango while smoking a particularly myrcene-heavy strain can enhance the entire experience. Myrcene is also known to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, as well as aiding in natural sedation.  
  • Pinene. Many of us love the smell of pine trees, whether it’s found on a trip through a forest or even having a little tree air freshener in our car. This particular terpene is found in coniferous trees as well as certain types of cannabis. It is also believed to be a natural antidepressant that boosts memory and some claim it has properties that can combat cancer cells. It is a natural antiseptic as well. Within the pinene family there are alpha and beta versions and each one has different properties or acts differently when combined with other terpenes. For instance, low amounts of pinene alpha and myrcene can produce energy while high amounts can produce body numbness or what’s called “couch lock.”  
  • Limonene. Cannabis with a citrusy bite often includes some degree of limonene. Consumers say this terpene can lower anxiety, boost immunity, and combat cancer as an anti-carcinogen. When combined with pinene, it can increase serotonin and dopamine in the brain, making you feel good for an extended period of time.
  • Humulene. This terpene is believed to increase energy and alertness. It also can be found in ginseng, a favorite root used in food and medicine.
  • Linalool. This shares properties with lavender and is considered able to reduce stress through its smell. When combined with pinene, it can reduce anxiety to a greater degree.
  • Caryophyllene. This terpene has a peppery taste and smell and is believed to increase appetite along with reducing depression and overall inflammation. Early research shows it also has helpful antioxidant properties and analgesics, much like taking aspirin. It also has alpha and beta versions. It is also found in hops, rosemary and cloves.
  • Geraniol. This fruity, somewhat citrusy-but-softer flavor is also found in geraniums as well as roses. It has been found to be an antioxidant as well as an anti-inflammatory.
  • Phellandrene. The minty, earthy profile is also found in parsley and fennel. It is also known for reducing inflammation, and when combined with limonene, is believed to reduce depression and lower anxiety.

The research into the role of terpenes in cannabis continues, which many find exciting, since it brings public perception closer to recognizing the plant and extracts from it as something that naturally can help the brain and body. This can also be done by targeting specific health conditions or needs, in the same vein as using aromatherapy or essential oils.