(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Lior Chatow is research and development manager for terpene technology company Eybna, based in Long Beach, California.)
Humans have consumed terpenes for hundreds of years.
These organic compounds are highly abundant in many plants that have been consumed for flavor, aroma or therapeutic purposes since ancient times.
Most terpenes are recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, just like any other ingredient, there are important safety guidelines to follow when adding terpenes to a manufactured product.
This is particularly true for marijuana and hemp products, where terpene applications are undergoing rapid growth and innovation.
Achieving a safe and effective balance of terpenes for cannabinoid products hinges on two key elements: the quality of the compounds and application.
More than 50,000 unique terpenes have been identified to date, and in the cannabis plant alone, scientists have mapped around 250.
With such an extensive pool to draw from, understanding what’s in your terpene formulation is an absolute necessity for safe and compliant products.
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Terpenes for cannabis products are cannabis-derived or botanical-derived, meaning they have been extracted either directly from a cannabis plant as an essential oil or from other non-cannabis plants such as pine or lavender.
Knowing the difference is important in terms of compliance: Cannabis-derived terpene formulations are subject to local cannabis regulations while botanical-derived terpenes are not.
The origin of the terpenes also impacts purity, consistency and scalability.
Each batch of cannabis-derived terpenes varies slightly according to the specific plant used; these variations are natural, even within the same strain and in the same growing conditions.
Botanical-derived terpene formulations can avoid variations by sourcing individual terpenes from numerous natural sources and then creating a standardized blend.
This ensures consistency from batch to batch, and the abundance of botanical terpenes can also make the formulations easier to scale.
No matter their plant of origin, terpenes for cannabis applications should be food grade – safe for human consumption and suitable to come into direct contact with other food products.
A trustworthy terpene supplier should be able to:
- Offer documentation proving their products are food grade.
- Provide a full list of ingredients and certificates of authentication, certificates of origin, certificates of analysis, safety data sheets and technical data sheets.
- Confirm that the terpenes are all-natural and solvent-free.
Some manufacturers can also provide non-GMO, Kosher, ISO 9001 and other certifications.
Application and packaging
Terpenes are very potent and volatile aromatic molecules, so only small amounts are necessary.
The method of application will help determine the ideal concentration of terpenes as well as the packaging needed to help keep them stable and long-lasting.
Inhalation is an efficient application of terpenes. The natural ratio of terpenes in the cannabis plant ranges from 1% to 5%, a reliable guidepost for infusion given that consumers have safely inhaled cannabis flower for generations.
At the upper limit, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission suggests inhalable cannabis products not surpass 10% terpene concentration.
Though not perfectly analogous, terpene-concentration guidelines have also been set in the e-cigarette world by regulatory bodies such as the European Association for the Coordination of Consumer Representation in Standardisation (ANEC).
ANEC’s 2019 position paper illustrated the importance of determining concentration on a terpene-by-terpene level because different terpenes can have significantly different limits.
However, e-cigarette guidelines should not be the sole guidepost for infusing terpenes into cannabis inhalables. While e-cigarette users take an average of 500 puffs per day, cannabis users take around nine.
Vape hardware also matters for inhalable terpene safety and compliance.
The ideal heating temperature of vaping is 356 degrees Fahrenheit and should not exceed 392 degrees Fahrenheit.
Adjustable-temperature hardware allows low-temperature heating and can reduce the amount of terpenes lost to heat and heat byproducts.
Stainless steel hardware is also highly recommended to eliminate risk of heavy-metal leaching.
Other than enriching extracts with flavor and functionality, infusing terpenes at around 5% concentration can slightly decrease the viscosity of cannabis extract, which is required for some vape hardware and consistency purposes.
Terpenes for inhalable products should be natural, with supporting quality documentations including a list of ingredients and composition statement.
One of the most effective oral deliveries is sublingual application, where the terpenes avoid first-pass metabolism and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has created reliable guidelines on the use of flavoring compounds in different food types.
The suggested range of terpene infusion for ingestibles is 0.01% to 2%, depending on the product and frequency of use.
The lower the serving size and frequency of use, the higher the terpene content can be.
For example, the suggested maximum for lime terpenes in chewing gum is four times higher than for hard candy.
Still, when it comes to cannabis edibles, keep in mind that frequency of use is much lower than non-cannabis food products.
Terpenes are hydrophobic, which means they do not mix well with water.
An emulsifier is typically used to help infuse terpenes with water-based products such as beverages and can also increase bioavailability of terpenes by protecting the fragile lipophilic terpenes.
Both terpenes and emulsifiers should be food grade and verified with documentation as safe to ingest.
Terpenes are common ingredients in topicals and cosmetics, not only for their aroma but also for functional benefits such as anti-inflammation, wound healing and antioxidant properties.
Terpenes add value in cannabis topicals as well because their chemical properties can enhance the absorption of cannabinoids through the skin.
Some terpenes can be dermal irritants, so their concentration in topical products needs to be carefully controlled.
Guidance from organizations such as the International Fragrance Association shows that safe limits depend both on the type of product and the individual terpene.
In particular, there is a big difference between concentration limits for products that are washed off and those that stay on the body.
In general, “stay on” topicals range from 0.1% to 10% terpene concentration, whereas “wash off” topicals range from 10% to 24%.
Terpene-infused dermal products should properly state allergenic terpenes on the packaging. Proper storage is important to preserve the terpenes’ effectiveness and decrease the risk of oxidation and adverse reactions.
Though the final decision on terpene dosing and a determination of product safety will vary for every new product, particular attention paid to the quality of terpene formulations and the specificity of the form factor is the key to success.
Lior Chatow can be reached at email@example.com.
The previous installment of this series is available here.
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