The Future of Terpenes

Posted by Jack O'Leary on

At Inca Trail it's safe to say we're more than bullish on the prospective future of terpenes. Both in and out of the cannabis industry, we believe terpene isolates are underutilized and their utility and potential will only be more and more realized as we help demystify these powerful plant compounds. 

First of all.. if you're wondering, what's a terpene? We got you.

ter·pene [/ˈtərpēn] 

"any of a large group of volatile unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants, especially conifers and citrus trees."

Vague, we know. A terpene is essentially a broad classification of natural plant compounds comprised of hydrogen and carbon. They're found in trees, plants, herbs, fruits, and all throughout nature. 

If you have ever taken a deep breath of crisp morning air in a forest, had your sinuses cleared after sitting in a steam room infused with eucalyptus oil, or smoked cannabis, then you have experienced the benefits of terpenes.

Even in small concentrations, these compounds have dramatic benefits as they interact with different enzyme systems, neurotransmitters, and second messenger systems to create physiological effects throughout the body. With scents ranging from citrus, to earthy, to spicy, and piney, terpenes are the reason many foods smell and taste appetizing; they’re Mother Nature’s spice cabinet. These aromatic compounds can be effective when inhaled at low concentrations. They can also be applied topically to the skin, ingested, or vaporized and smoked. Terpenes are common to the human diet and have a long history of use throughout human civilization.

However, terpenes have immense practical value outside of the cannabis world. They’re the reason the aromatherapy industry has boomed. Terpenes are becoming popular in the culinary world as well, as they enhance flavors and aromas in food and drinks. Maybe most importantly, terpenes have tremendous potential in the medical field.

Market Outlook

Due to their application in the medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and culinary worlds terpenes are expected to grow at a rate of 6.3% per year, reaching a market size of $730 million by 2024. These plant compounds can provide a lifestyle change, one from which many people could greatly benefit from. Whether it is a substitute for prescription medicine, an alternative to products with undisclosed, potentially toxic chemicals, or simply a desire to reconnect with one’s self and come in tune with nature, terpenes and the plants they are found in can be the answer to many of the issues of the modern world. Or they may at least alleviate some symptoms.

Terpenes are the components in essential oils, if you love lavender oil, then you'd also love linalool. Every essential oil is composed of multiple terpene isolates.

The market for essential oils continues to grow and is expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2022. For good reasons. Aromatherapy (direct inhalation) is the quickest and most effective way to absorb terpenes, which explains why a breath of fresh forest air can be so refreshing. Inhaling terpene vapors can have an immediate impact on the body and mind. Within seconds, these vapors affect our senses and have profound impacts on our bodies.

Terpenes In Cannabis

Terpenes are most prominently known by cannabis enthusiasts and users. Though even some seasoned stoners haven't heard of a terpene profile, and we're working our hardest to change that. If you haven't an idea of what terpene profile is, let me explain.

Every strain of cannabis contains terpenes and there are over a hundred different terpenes that can be found within the many different strains of the plant. The cannabis plant has three different species, indica, sativa, and ruderalis, and a vast array of terpene expressions. Many factors affect terpene concentrations such as time, humidity, the type of soil it is grown in, and temperature. Terpene concentration will also vary through processing. 

These terms are not reflective of the plant’s true therapeutic qualities, rather it is a forced and contrived dichotomy which poorly classifies the diverse spectrum of cannabis strains. It’s like walking into a library and all of the books are organized by fiction and non-fiction. While it’s true a book is either fiction or non-fiction, terpenes are the more precise sub-genres like suspense, fantasy, western, etc. Like a helpful librarian guiding you to the aisle of science fiction or even helping you locate a specific book like Stoner by John Williams (which I highly recommend by the way.. it has nothing to do with cannabis), dispensary experts should be able to help you find precisely the desired experience of strain based on terpene profile. You want a sedating, anxiolytic strain? OG Kush. An uplifting and creative boost? Blue Dream. Sativa & indica have served as a useful metric for cannabis users for many years, but the time has come for more in-depth analysis and knowledge of the hundreds of different cannabis strains. Terpenes profile should soon become the new sativa/indica.

Cannabis is largely a chaotically disorganized market (even in 2021) saturated with media that is unsubstantiated. Just look at delta-8, an unregulated hemp derivative that has been legal now for 3 years, that lawmakers are now finally scrambling to mandate. Federally, it's a schedule 1 controlled substance, yet legal currently in 17 states. 

This disorganization also runs through the classification of cannabis strains and profiles. Currently, there is zero accountability. If you, the reader, me, the author, and Steve, over in Maryland all grow our own respective cannabis plants - say it is the strain Wedding Cake. We're in three different locations growing three different plants. Those three are all going to have three varying terpene profiles. Due to differences in conditions like humidity, elevation, light exposure, among other things, they will different concentrations of each specific isolate. So, essentially they are three different plants. A Blue Dream you purchase in Boston will almost certainly be a different Blue Dream bought in Portland. Thus, will have different effects, and if a user were to find a strain with a terpene profile that helps alleviate a condition they suffer from, a different Blue Dream may not have the same helpful effects they previously were benefitting from.

This is a complicated issue with no clear solution. However, brands like are helping demystify the science behind these strains by keeping a comprehensive record of the terpene profiles of strains found throughout the country. That way, a user who loves a specific strain or uses a strain like Grape Ape to alleviate chronic pain, can then understand that it is specifically a X% THC, X% CBD, and a transparent terpene profile, which can be then be replicated and used over and over. Rather than hoping one dispensary's Grape Ape is like another's, thanks to we can revel in the specificity of their database. 

All in all, terpenes can be used to uncover and more fully understand the beautifully complicated nature of cannabis. 

Terpenes in Essential Oils

Terpenes’ most popular application is in the essential oil industry. It is important to distinguish the differences between essential oils and terpenes. Initially, they may seem like the same thing. Essential oils are defined as a natural oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic fragrance of the plant or other source from which it is extracted. Essential oils work because they possess terpenes. Terpenes are the compounds extracted from these plants, and when diffused into the air, can have many physiological benefits. 

Terpenes can be absorbed through the nose by use of diffusers, humidifiers, and perfumes, and should be since they are so fragrant and pleasing. Terpenes are also absorbed through pores in the skin and the salivary glands in the mouth. Many essential oil and terpene distributors have created terpene-specific vaporizer pens designed to help calm the mind, stimulate creativity, and bust lethargy. When inhaled, special terpene blends can work instantly to reduce stress or invigorate the body, while their therapeutic potential is increased when consumed in conjunction with cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, “administration of terpenes is most effective via inhalation,” and is essentially all the benefits of aromatherapy in your pocket. 

Rather than people vaping cancer-causing, lung-polyp-ing nicotine sticks, maybe (and hopefully) we'll see more terpene vaporizers. They can be tailored to product a specific physiological or neurological effect, without the harmful chemicals. They also can just be a yummy flavor that is used for people trying to kick the nic-sticks, which will probably only be more and more of an issue as time goes on and the Posh, Puff, and Juuls (etc.) go on unregulated. 

Terpenes in Cuisine

Terpenes have immense value and potential in the culinary world. The naturally occurring compounds not only give off unique aromas, but also distinctive flavors which can greatly enhance a dish or drink. When you slice an orange, rip through some basil, or bite into a lemon, it it terpenes that you are smelling and tasting. 

Cooking with terpenes enhances flavors and also provides innumerable health benefits. The most exciting part is, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the nuances and intricacies associated with these ingredients and flavors. No one knows the number of unknown recipes and combinations, waiting to be discovered.

A whole terpene mixology scene has been born and is growing rapidly. Los Angeles seems to be ground zero for this movement with terpenes infused restaurants and bars all over, however spots all throughout the country are starting to infuse dishes and drinks with terpenes.

Terpenes in Insect Control

Many plants use terpenes to manipulate insects and to protect themselves. Plants produce a wide diversity of compounds involved in their chemical defense. Among these natural products, terpene compounds have been shown to have a significant potential for insect control. ß-Caryophyllene is emitted by Arabidopsis thaliana flowers to protect against bacterial pathogens. Other plants emit terpenes like limonene, thymol, and citronellol to deter invading insects.

Because insects often affect food production and human health, synthetic insecticides have been used to repel bugs and preserve crops for roughly 90 years now. Since the beginning of their use in the 1930’s, the U.S. and world population has roughly tripled in size, creating a higher demand for food. 

Terpenes can be used to make all-natural and effective produce washes, bug sprays, and insect repellants. As we become more and more aware of the harmful chemicals that are being used to deter pests from our foods (like glyphosate in Cheerios), we will hopefully decide to use healthier, all-natural pest deterrents that do not poison our food supply. Terpenes are created by plants all natural pest-deterrents and should be utilized 

Terpenes in Home, Health, and Wellness

Terpenes can be infused into cleaning products as they are largely antibacterial, antimicrobial, etc. They're appealing scent and disinfectant qualities make them great for an all-natural hand soap, sanitizer, or just about any other cleaning product.

Almost all household cleaning supplies have some sort of ‘fragrance’ in them and most store-bought products can and often do cause serious health problems. One way to ensure you, your family, and anyone you invite within the home or workplace are not breathing and ingesting formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals is by making your own cleaning products. It’s actually rather simple and easy, and even cost-effective. Many terpenes have antimicrobial qualities making them great for cleaning, as they can kill bacteria, fungus, and viruses. An essential oil like citrus can provide antimicrobial properties, effectively break down grease and grime, and provide a natural and flavorful aromatic citrus scent.

Terpenes can be used to make perfumes, colognes, candles, and air fresheners. Generations of experimenting, testing, refining, and learning have led us to where we are today in our knowledge of terpenes, but we still have much to learn. There are an extensive list of health benefits these isolates can provide.

As you can see, terpenes are much more than the flavoring in cannabis concentrates (however that's what they're most commonly known for). They are a natural and holistic option to alleviate many of the mental barriers holding us back from who we want to be. Whether it is a substitute for prescription medicine, an alternative to products with undisclosed, potentially toxic chemicals, or simply a desire to reconnect with one’s self and come in tune with nature, terpenes and the plants they are found in can be the answer to many of the issues of the modern world. Or they may at least alleviate some symptoms. 

If you want to know even more about terpenes, check out our upcoming book, The Terpene Book! It's got everything you'll need to know on terpenes. Recipes, formulas, and interviews with integral figures in the industry like Ethan Russo!


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