We all know what cannabis is – even if we may never have consumed the plant itself or seen the crop up close. Similarly, many of us are also now aware of cannabinoids, including what they are, and the impressive properties they may have. Yet, just a few years ago, it is probably fair to say that most people would have never heard the term “cannabinoids”. Furthermore, there are other cannabis compounds that – though many people may have heard of – most people aren’t familiar with what they actually are.  

For example, the scientific community has been aware of terpenes for a long time; they are present in many plants, including cannabis, and are known to have a number of impressive therapeutic properties. But, just as the general population has learned increasingly more about cannabinoids in recent years, awareness of terpenes and their potential health and wellness properties is now also on the rise. This awareness has led to an increase in demand for cannabis preparations containing a favourable terpene profile. For those of us who are still a little unsure about the importance of terpenes, we want to take this opportunity to take a deep dive into these unassuming compounds. From there, we will be exploring the importance of terpenes in the global cannabis industry. 

Understanding Terpenes 

Like cannabinoids, terpenes have become associated with the Cannabis Sativa plant. Unlike cannabinoids, however, terpenes are not exclusive to the cannabis plant. In fact, scientists have discovered around 20,000 terpenes in all known plants in the world. By comparison, only around 150 cannabinoids have been found in cannabis. Nonetheless, these numerous compounds are thought to contribute significantly to the effects of cannabis – and all the other plants in which they can be found.  

Terpenes are aromatic compounds that contribute to the scent and flavour of many plants. For example, limonene is found in several citrus fruits and even takes its name from the lemon; α-pinene is found in pine needles and contributes to the distinctive scent of the tree. These primary terpenes can also be found in cannabis plants, contributing to the varying scents and flavours of different strains.  

But terpenes are not only linked to the scent and flavour profiles of their plants. As we mentioned earlier, terpenes can also contribute to the effects of different plants. In fact, individual terpenes have been found to have a number of therapeutic properties in their own right. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that terpenes can also amplify the effects of cannabinoids and other terpenes. This effect is known as “the entourage effect”.  

The Therapeutic Potential of Terpenes 

Terpenes have long been used in the creation of essential oils which in turn are used in a variety of products – from skincare to aromatherapy. For example, many people are aware of the potentially calming and relaxing effect of lavender extracts; but what they may not know is that lavender contains a high concentration of linalool. This terpene has been found to have potential anti-stress and anxiety properties.  

While we know far from everything about these incredibly numerous compounds, current evidence suggests that many other terpenes, such as α-pinene, limonene, and myrcene may have similarly impressive health benefits. Until fairly recently, the production of both medical and recreational cannabis products placed an almost exclusive focus on cannabinoid content; however, growing awareness of their potential benefits is increasingly making favourable terpene profiles an important consideration. 

The Growing Demand for Terpenes in Cannabis Products 

The so-called “Entourage Effect” has played a vital role in the growing demand for terpenes. This has become a popular theory to describe how cannabis compounds – including cannabinoids and terpenes – may work to enhance the properties of one another when taken in combination. While there remains a lack of solid evidence to confirm the significance of this potential, various studies have assessed the synergistic effects of terpenes.  

For example, one 2021 study concluded that “terpenes found in Cannabis sativa are analgesic, and could produce an “entourage effect” whereby they modulate cannabinoids to result in improved outcomes.” 

Findings such as this have prompted cultivators and producers to seek ways to improve the terpene profile of their crops. This may include selecting specific cannabis strains for cultivation or even adopting different cultivation techniques to encourage higher concentrations of terpenes. Of course, while adopting new strains and cultivation methods, producers must continue to comply with GACP and GMP regulations. 

Terpenes and GMP 

As is the case for any products intended for pharmaceutical or medical purposes (in addition to food, beauty products and more) preparations containing terpenes are subject to GMP regulation. As we explain in more detail in our article, “What is GMP and What Does it Mean for the Cannabis Industry?”, GMP influences everything from the defined manufacturing process and critical manufacturing steps to the need for suitable premises, storage, and transportation of all legal cannabis products.  

Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) regulation also applies to products containing terpenes. Much of this regulation falls under the ‘Guideline on quality of herbal medicinal products/traditional herbal medicinal products’. This includes submitting and adhering to approved cultivation and manufacturing processes and carrying out control tests and stability tests of herbal preparations.  

Optimising Terpene Profiles in Cannabis Products 

Different cannabis strains contain varying concentrations of terpenes. These concentrations can be significantly affected by extraction processes employed for the manufacture of cannabis non-flower cannabis products. Many terpenes are volatile compounds that can be easily destroyed through common extraction processes; however, evidence shows that some extraction techniques may be effective at limiting this loss, resulting in a more terpene-rich cannabis extract. For example, one analytical study demonstrated how an upgraded (CERFIT) extraction method resulted in a cannabis extract with a comparable cannabinoid profile but, importantly, “a superior quantity of total terpene hydrocarbon forms (e.g., limonene and α-pinene) with no degradation occurrence”. 

While the cannabis industry continues to evolve and fluctuate, there are many factors that seem certain to change with it. Yet, consumer demand for more varied and versatile products means that prioritising favourable terpene profiles, in addition to cannabinoid content, is likely to become increasingly important for cultivators and manufacturers. As such, the development of new cultivation and processing techniques to achieve this goal will also be an important consideration moving forward.