We often hear the saying, you are what you eat, but unfortunately that is never really fully detailed or described further. The types of foods you consume have implications on metabolic rates, fat storage system, energy levels, cholesterol levels and even mood. Today we know that these systems are all linked in some fashion through the endocannabinoid system. How exactly all of that works together, which types of food inputs regulate which functions of these systems and which specific molecules are playing which specific interactions with which particular receptors is only starting to be more fully detailed.
In food, we often consider broad designations of labeling such as, sugar-free, gluten-free, vegan friendly and the like. That helps us to understand some of the composition of these products. A more recent, and exceptionally interesting, trend emerging in the cannabis market is infused products and edibles containing terpenes. We now understand that different terpene compositions can impact patient physiological responses in various ways, and that finding the right terpene combinations can make all the difference in terms of medical effectiveness for the patient.
“We now understand that different terpene compositions can impact patient physiological responses in various ways, and that finding the right terpene combinations can make all the difference in terms of medical effectiveness for the patient.”
Terpenes are a large and diverse class of organic compounds, produced by a variety of plants, particularly conifers. They often have a strong odor. The FDA and other agencies have generally recognized terpenes as “safe.” Terpenes act on receptors and neurotransmitters, readily dissolve in lipids or fat and have exceptionally diverse physiological interactions. Some may act as serotonin uptake inhibitors; some may enhance norepinephrine activity; others have been shown to increase dopamine activity; and yet others may augment GABA.
The word terpene is an exceptionally broad based word, as over 20,000 different molecules can be represented by this single word, which is why the class of compounds are attributed to such broad physiological functions. More specific research is needed for improved accuracy in describing and predicting how terpenes in cannabis can be used medicinally to help treat specific ailments/health conditions.
Various researchers have emphasized the pharmacological importance of terpenes and terpenoids, which form the basis of aromatherapy, a popular holistic healing modality. Pungent terpene oils repel insects and animal grazers; others prevent fungus. They can be used to protect the plants that produce them by deterring herbivores and by attracting predators and parasites of herbivores.
Terpenes, it turns out, are healthy for people as well as useful to plants. Terpenes are natural inhibitors of NF-kappaB signaling with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer potential. A September 2011 report by Dr. Ethan Russo in the British Journal of Pharmacology discussed the wide-ranging therapeutic attributes of terpenes, which are typically lacking in “CBD-only” products, and rarely taken advantage of in cooking and everyday health and wellness.
An important consideration we need to make is the specific terpene compositions in these cannabis products. Cannabis strain pairings, such as perhaps a Lemon Haze with a citrus-based edible product, can help to accentuate the limonene in the end product. Limonene may be useful to promote weight loss, prevent cancer, aid in treating cancer and even bronchitis, but how it interacts when delivered with many other terpenes and cannabinoids at once is still not well understood.
Cooking with terpenes is a wide-spread phenomenon among health and wellness professionals and culinary cannasseurs as well. Beta-caryophyllene, for example, is a sesquiterpene found in the essential oil of black pepper, oregano and other edible herbs, as well as in various cannabis strains and in many green, leafy vegetables. It is gastro-protective, good for treating certain ulcers, and offers great promise as a therapeutic compound for inflammatory conditions and auto-immune disorders because it binds directly to the peripheral cannabinoid receptor known as “CB2.”
When cooking, the use of terpene and terpenoid-rich plants can give you added benefits and added flavors and aromas. In 2008, the Swiss scientist Jürg Gertsch documented beta-caryophyllene’s binding affinity for the CB2 receptor and described it as “a dietary cannabinoid.” It is the only terpene known to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor. And it’s one of the reasons why green, leafy vegetables are so healthy to eat.
Terpenes and cannabinoids have been shown to be able to both increase blood flow, enhance cortical activity, and kill respiratory pathogens, including MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that in recent years has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. Dr. Russo’s article reports that cannabinoid-terpene interactions “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.”
“The word terpene is an exceptionally broad based word, as over 20,000 different molecules can be represented by this single word, which is why the class of compounds are attributed to such broad physiological functions.”
Innovative cannabis chefs are now beginning to push this frontier and are bringing exciting products to the marketplace. Pairings and profiling of products in this regard will be discussed on upcoming episodes of the Cooking with Keira show, now in production.
Jeanne L. D. Osnas, PhD and Katherine Angela Preston, PhD consistently write about and teach about the fun of botany in the kitchen and have great insight into the evolution of terpenes in the kitchen. They create recipes utilizing the wide variety of terpenes in the plant kingdom, and go into great detail in blog posts, magazine articles and classes, about how exactly to replace or reinvigorate terpenes in recipes, both raw and cooked. They update their blog The Botanist in the Kitchen regularly with fascinating articles, recipes and information. Just as cannabis loses some of its terpenes when it is decarboxylated, other plants and herbs lose them when heated too. Osnas and Preston tell us how to replace flavorful and powerful terpenes when lost in cooking. For example, in a post about a pepper-crusted beef tenderloin recipe, they explain how the hot oil removes some of the flavorful terpene compounds (specifically pinene and limonene), and how they decide to rectify, by adding rich nutmeg (Myristica fragrans; Myristicaceae) and limonene-rich orange (Citrus x sinensis; Rutaceae) zest to the dry rub, along with the simmered black pepper. In doing so they take advantage of a widespread and diverse array of terpenes and simultaneously increase the concentration of useful ones that may be lost during heating so that in the end more are present than if you didn’t supplement them.
Author Harold McGee, PhD has garnered a lot of success from his interest in food and science, and has won numerous awards for his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, published in 1984, that goes into great depth about how to use terpenes to your advantage in the kitchen, and explains the science of what and how terpenes are made and accessible to plants and humans.
The nutrition of these compounds is not a common topic of conversation within the culinary or cannabis worlds, but this topic is growing in popularity now that so many people are becoming interested and educated in how terpenes can affect their cannabis experiences. The next step in this continuing evolution of interest is cooking with terpenes, and we see that now gaining steam too. Books like The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking is a great resource. As is The Science of Good Cooking, Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking, The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking, and The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.
Thorn Street Brewery has introduced a beer, OG HighPA, that smells and tastes like cannabis, and utilized fragrant cannabis terpenes to get their perfect resulting smell and taste. It’s made with a blend of citra, mosaic, and columbus hops, as well as pinene and myrcene for the signature “dankness” so reminiscent of a fresh, juicy cannabis flower. With terpenes derived from Pineapple Kush and select other fragrant strains, the flavors of pine, grass, and a hint of citrus make this a unique brew.
San Francisco-based brewers Cellarmaker Brewing Co. also has a cannabis-inspired, terpene-infused beer. Terpene Station is a cask conditioned double IPA with galaxy hops, but doesn’t state which terpenes they have infused back into the beer to make it taste and smell like their cannabis inspiration.
When cooking with terpenes, many different plants can be used, and there are different processes to make sure you get everything you want out of them. Limonene can be extracted from citrus. Linalool can be extracted from lavender. Humulene from hops. Myrcene from mangos but there’s also synthetic versions of those molecules that can be created in the lab to provide solely that molecule.
While we don’t know which particular composition may be best for which patients, we do understand that terpenes can potentiate and improve the effects of the cannabinoids when they are delivered together.
We’re only scratching the tip of the iceberg in finding out which terpenes may impact which patients in which regards, but we are now beginning to be able to more fully explore this with improved product compositions now entering the cannabis and culinary markets. Sophisticated product manufacturers, ones that pay special attention to their entire product composition in terms of terpenes and cannabinoids, will most definitely be the ones to excel in this rapidly expanding product space. The future does look bright, and tasty!