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Are Terpenes Safe to Consume?

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes and their cousin’s terpenoids are found in many plants and a few insects. These are naturally occurring chemicals that vary in many isoprene units linked together. The “C5 rule” implies that the isoprene unit is typically built by plants in a head to tail fashion. One of the more common terpenes is called Limonene and here is its structure:

Triterpene Molecule-photo by California Weed Blog

As the name implies, it is found in things that smell “citrusy”. This has two isoprene units linked head to tail and is called a monoterpene. There are other monoterpenes that differ by the placement of oxygen and extra carbon groups. Each has different odors and flavors.

You may have heard of another terpene called squalene. This occurs in many oils and is a major constituent of fish liver oils and olive oil. This is known as a triterpene and has 6 isoprene units linked together in a linear fashion:

This is a precursor for making cholesterol and natural steroids.

Triterpene Molecule-photo by California Weed Blog

There are many more kinds of terpenes with a variety of ringed and linear structures and lengths. The point is that they naturally occur in plants and insects and some animals. They are used in essential oils and medicines and are found in wines and many other items that we consume.

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What about CBD and Terpenes?

If you look at the ratio of the various cannabinoids to terpenes in a raw hemp plant, you will see a certain pattern based on the type of plant and year of growth. In other words, that fingerprint is unique to the variant of the plant, and that fingerprint also varies depending on the growth season (how much rain, sun, etc). You’ve experienced this in the produce section as you smell one container of strawberries and compare it to another. Some just smell better!

Just like with other plants, the processing can remove things. Canning fruit makes them smell less fresh, removes some of the vitamins and minerals, and so on. It is the same with CBD oils. The process of extracting the oil from the hemp plant can alter that initial ratio of cannabinoids to terpenes by changing the chemical structures or even totally destroying some. This is why CBD oil tastes and smells the way it does, it relates to which terpenes are used and how much of each type is still present at the end of the process.

Buy terpenes

Why do Terpenes matter in CBD products?

Because the natural terpene balance is altered during processing of CBD oil, some companies are adding them back. In vaping products, terpenes are often added back into the CBD to improve flavor. There are some CBD tincture products on the market that blend back in specific terpenes to achieve a specific end target. For example, they add beta-caryophyllene and myrcene to a product intended to help with pain relief. Myrcene is one of the most prevalent terpenes in hemp plants and accounts for the earthy or musky smells. It also, at high levels (0.5% or more), relates to strains that cause sedative effects. Beta-caryophyllene, or BCP, has been shown to react with CB2 receptors in terms of inflammation and pain relief. Adding these two terpenes back into a product intended to aid with pain makes total sense.

There are even some products now available that offer purified, or synthetic terpenes. These are intended to enhance other products or help address specific needs. In other cases, strains that are high in certain terpenes are recommended to address those issues.

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How safe are Terpenes to consume?

For the most part, the primary terpenes found in cannabis are on the FDA “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list. Being on this list means that large doses can be consumed without concern for safety. One caveat to consider is that this list was developed for food and oral products. Vaping and smoking could be a different category in terms of safety, and without further research, it’s hard to make a specific recommendation.

The terpenes most often associated with hemp are a-pinene, Linalool, BCP, myrcene, and limonene. These are all on the GRAS list. Many cannabinoid companies have produced “flavor wheels” which show the various terpenes and their associated scents as well as their potential effects. If you’d like to check out a specific terpene, a good place to start is the FDA GRAS list located here. On the left-hand side are search tools. Use the simple search tool and type in the name. You can see if it is listed and in what capacity if you are concerned about terpenes or any other chemicals.

Terpene Flavor wheel
Graphic courtesy of SC Labs

What is the best way to consume Terpenes?

Based on the evidence, it seems that terpenes are safe to consume. A study from 2007 compared vaping to smoking marijuana and cigarettes. They did a survey of over 6,000 people who used cannabis and found that vaping was associated with less respiratory symptoms, such as a cough, chest tightness, and mucus production, than smoking. Therefore, vaping terpenes is likely a safer and effective option. However, it should be noted that research is limited and as mentioned above, the FDA currently only states consuming terpenes as food or oral products is safe. From this, it probably is most effective to consume terpenes orally, rather than through vaping.

All in all, it seems that terpenes are safe to eat. It is always a good idea to do your research before consuming anything. Some products may contain pesticides or other chemicals that could be harmful to ingest, so double check to confirm your products are safe!

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