Terpenes and Terroir Gain Marketing Traction in Legal Cannabis Industry

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Most Europeans with a passing interest in cannabis already know about CBD – cannabidiol – and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). They know that the former chemical is the “safer” part of cannabis, with the latter being the psychoactive element – and that there are usually legal limits to THC (0.2% in the U.K.).

Yet, as the consumer cohort for cannabis becomes more sophisticated, there is another factor in the mix: terpenes. They are the aromatic organic hydrocarbons in the cannabis plant, which in the natural habitat protect the plants from pests and predators, and add flavour, aroma, and colour to cannabis variants.

Terpenes, of which there are said to be over 100 different kinds in cannabis, are becoming part of cannabis’ marketing; like CBD, they are seen as benign – if somewhat chemically volatile and prey to degradation. Hence, there is an increasing trend to see different terpenes and strains as part of the panoply of cannabis product marketing, as flavour is in foodstuffs. Some consumer round-ups in Europe now mention terpenes, indicating that the public is ready to understand them and their role in giving flavour to different CBD and cannabis products.

Indeed, some believe that terpenes will play an increasing role in shaping cannabis marketing, as they will herald each product’s stand-out characteristics. They may even affect the function-oriented marketing of cannabis as different strains and terpenes can be specified for different lifestyle demands – e.g., from stress relief and relaxation given by some terpenes, to sharpness and a greater sense of focus in others – leading to greater consumer choice  and product differentiation.

Nor is their efficacy confined to off-the-shelf products, as it is thought that the terpenes and flavonoids found in medical cannabis can play roles in more serious therapeutic effects such as anti-spasticity and anti-inflammatory effects, and perhaps address even more chronic ailments.

The entourage effect – the term for the multiplier effect in cannabis whereby all the ingredients work more efficaciously in combination – is a growing factor in cannabis science, both in the recreational and medical domains. Terpenes are important to consider in the entourage approach, and the right combination of cannabinoids and terpenes are said to increase and quicken the effects of medical cannabis. On the recreational front, terpenes also move into the domain of cannabis connoisseurship, where the terpenes in a strain influence product choice rather than the mere THC strength.

As such, the Terpene Wheel – a diagrammatic way of showing the influence of terpenes – is becoming a guide for producers and consumers of medical cannabis. Here are a few of the most prevalent terpenes and their aromas:

Myrcene – musky, herbal

Pinene – pine and fir

Limonene – citrus

Terpinolene – herbal, sage, rosemary

Camphene – forests and firs

Terpineol – lilacs and flowers

Phellandrene – peppermint and citrus

There are many more, and while terpenes can be extracted for infusion into products, cannabis aficionados are also starting to link them to their terroir: the French word noting the environmental and climatic origins of agricultural products which give them specificity.

As Tim McDonald,  director of U.K.-based oHHo Botanicals explained, “Cannabis is like wine or cheese – where it’s grown and how it’s grown matter.” Because of this, terpenes – which are also found in vines – are sometimes equated to wine varietals, and in similar spirit, are referred to in cannabis tasting notes as imparting particular characteristics.

With fragrance and flavour, terpenes also have great relevance to markets such as vapes, edibles, or beauty and skincare, where such lures are paramount product characteristics. As such, it has been estimated that the cannabis aroma industry is expected to grow fast in the next few years, with one estimate expecting the terpene sector itself to become worth $1 billion by 2024.

Unsurprisingly, proprietary combinations are coming onto markets. As Jesse Lopez of Geocann (based in the U.S. and Switzerland) recently said, “With regards to our global exclusivity for cannabinoids and terpenes – whether we formulate these ingredients to create a functional drink… All of those product applications are covered by our exclusivity for the technology”.

U.K.-based TTS Pharma supplies full terpene profiles, while Berlin-based food start-up Becanex has begun a €505,000 ($614,500 USD) project aimed at developing a stable emulsion for food production that is THC-free but otherwise contains all the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the hemp plant – flavours shared without fear of intoxication.

As such an important component in cannabis products, terpenes are appearing on packaging and labels, giving proper information to cannabis consumers. There are new products in the packaging industry to arrest the loss of terpenes in containers, so that they don’t degrade on the shelf.

As the industry grows, terpenes may well become one of the most important factors in customers’ purchasing practices.  After all, in the old days of illicit cannabis, to smell the produce was one of the most crucial tests that a buyer could undertake.