Terpenes are the largest group of naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants. The aroma and pigment of plants is largely due to the terpenes they contain. In addition to smells and colouration, terpenes play a fundamental role in the survival of plants; some function as a defence mechanism while others support the plants immune system.
What are Terpenes?
One of the most abundant chemical compounds occurring in nature, terpenes are commonly found in plants such as cannabis, pine, lavender, sage, thyme, and various citrus fruits. Aside from the herbaceous aromas and citrus flavours, terpenes have been found to play an important role in human health.
Terpenes are also referred to as terpenoids – however, these two terms differ in meaning. Terpenes are the natural form living on the plant. Once the plant is cut, dried, and cured the terpenes oxidise and become terpenoids.
There are hundreds of terpenes existing in nature, and many of them are bioactive (which means they have the ability to affect people in some way). Even the aroma produced by certain terpenes has an effect on people’s mood. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the beneficial biological effects that terpenes have on human health. Much of the research has found that the use of terpenes can be a viable alternative treatment of several diseases. This is due in large part to the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral benefits, just a few of the many properties they possess.
As each terpene is unique, they all have different benefits for the human body. For example, Limonene (a terpene commonly found in citrus fruits) has anti-inflammatory properties, which helps the body reduce swelling and inflammation. Linalool, a terpene abundant in lavender, has anti anxiety properties alongside its sedative effects.
In addition to medical uses, terpenes have been used in many common household products. This includes soaps, detergents, fragrances and essential oils. The aromatic qualities of certain terpenes makes them the perfect ingredient to make things smell fresh.
History of Terpenes & the Modern Terpene Industry
The use of terpenes can be traced back thousands of years to when Ancient Egyptians used them as fragrances and in religious ceremonies. Other civilisations such as Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman and Chinese cultures used essential oils and their accompanying terpenoid elements for medicinal uses. Moreover, people from India even combined cannabis with calamus root (which contains Linalool) in smoking ceremonies.
Years later in the 17th century, a German chemist named Otto Wallach discovered the composition of several terpenes and identified that they were composed of two or more carbon units. Through experimentation, Wallach was able to isolate the fragrant substances from essential oils which he called “terpenes”. In 1910 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for chemistry due to his discovery. Wallach’s work laid the foundation for the modern terpene industry. Later down the road many different people began developing processes for extracting terpenes from plants which are still used today.
The Most Widely Used Terpenes
There are over 400 terpenes that have been found in nature, and some of them are more common than others. However, not all of them have medicinal properties nor do they necessarily possess desirable aromas.
Depending on the number of isoprene units they contain terpenes are classified as mono, di, tri, tetra, and sesquiterpenes. Each classification has its own chemical structure and functionality.
Some of the most widely used terpenes include the following:
Limonene – A monoterpene commonly found in citrus fruits. This terpene possesses a lemon-like scent which makes it ideal for use in fruit juices, fragrances, and other sweet consumables. Limonene also has numerous health properties such as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral benefits.
Linalool – Another monoterpene, derived from plants such as lavender, rose petals, and birch trees. Linalool, similar to Limonene, exhibits anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Myrcene – A monoterpene produced by plants such as hops and cannabis sativa. Myrcene has an extremely pungent aroma which has made it a popular ingredient in the production of beer. Like the terpenes previously mentioned, myrcene has a variety of health benefits including anti-anxiety, sedation and muscle relaxation.
Beta-Caryophyllene – The fundamental sesquiterpene adding to the spiciness of black pepper. It’s also a component of cloves, hops, and rosemary. Beta Caryophyllene was actually the first compound derived from cannabis (other than THC, CBD, and CBN) that had the ability to bind directly to endocannabinoid receptors.
Pinene – Often considered the most commonly found terpene in nature. As the name suggests, Pinene is prominent in pine trees and gives off a fresh, earthy and uplifting scent. Through research, Pinene has been found to have anti-inflammatory and antibiotic effects.
Commonly Used Terpene ProductsThroughout time since their discovery, terpenes have been the one of the fundamental ingredients used in the fragrance industry. This is due in large part to the unique scent they produce. Additionally, many terpenes are used as a flavour enhancer in food and beverage products.
Aside from enhancing the taste and smell of common consumables, some terpenes can be used as a natural insect repellent and pesticide against cockroaches, flies, ticks and mosquitos. Furthermore, because of their anti-inflammatory and various healing properties, some terpenes are used in skin lotions to help reduce irritation and aid in the recovery from burns.
How We Use Terpenes
• Hemp Gin with Beta Caryophyllene – Beta-Caryophyllene provides our gin with a unique and robust flavour. Its pungent and herbaceous aroma makes this gin popular with whiskey lovers since the terpene provides a full bodied taste profile.
• Linalool Hemp Gin – Natural Distilling Co uses Linalool to create a gin that’s sweet yet savoury. Linalool’s floral scent makes it a perfect addition to other natural gin botanicals.
• Limonene Hemp Gin – Limonene’s citrus-like qualities make it one of the best natural flavour enhancers for our gin. Limonene interacts smoothly with juniper berries and creates a mandarin-like finish. The Limonene in our gin is so flavourful that it even eliminates the need for a mixer!
• Myrcene Hemp Vodka – Myrcene has a uniquely pungent aroma and is actually one of the most popular terpenes used in the manufacturing of food and beverages. This terpene makes our vodka one of the most unique tasting gluten free vodkas in Australia. Our Myrcene Hemp Vodka has crisp notes of basil and lavender and is perfectly paired with a slice of lemon.
So there you have it – terpenes are everywhere! These fascinating molecules are an ancient functional food with myriad uses for our modern age. You don’t need a degree in Molecular Biology (like our founder Rhys) to find a use for these…but you probably do need a small glass of spirits to help inspire some fresh ideas in your terpene research – check out our range here 😉