Synthetic vs. Natural: Are All Terpenes Created Equal?

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Being fully informed is essential to advocate for your own health and wellness. But when it comes to navigating the evolving science, limited research, and misinformation out there, seeing what’s up and what’s downright dangerous can be pretty challenging.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with internationally recognized cannabis expert, plant and health advocate, Chief Knowledge Officer for New Frontier Data, and founder of Personal Plants, Dr. Amanda Reiman, to break down science, debunk the myths, and arm you with everything you need to consume consciously and safely.

First up, Dr. Reiman’s take on the rise of synthetic terpenes.


Now that terpenes are all the rage, we’ve seen a significant rise in synthetics and brands adding terps to their tinctures, oils, ointments, beverages, and edibles. There are even companies, like Altria (the tobacco giant behind Marlboro), trying to capitalize on the step change by creating designer strains with specific terpene concentrations.

If we’ve learned anything from the problems of processed foods and synthetic chemicals in the products we consume, it’s that being conscious of what we put into our bodies matters.

But unlike mindful food consumption with standardized labels, pages of reviews, and easily researched products, there remain a number of unanswered and under-researched questions on cannabis additives and how they may or may not impact our health.

Here’s what we know *so far* on the difference between synthetic and botanical (natural) terpenes, and what you should look for when choosing a product based on terpenes.

Synthetic terpenes are made in a lab using chemical manipulation to create “theoretically perfect” terpenes. Like other food additives, synthetic terpenes may be “food grade,” but they do not come from a plant.

In food terms these are the GMOs, or more simply, the juice concentrates—full of flavor, lacking the same nutritional value, and created using a blend of artificial and natural ingredients. If you’ve ever had lemon flavored candy and thought, what in the fake lemon flavor is this? You can see the limitations of imitations.

Botanical terpenes are naturally produced by plants to repel predators or seduce pollinators. You’ve probably encountered these aromatics in a body lotion with lavender’s calming linalool, or if you’ve ever walked through a pine forest (that’s pinene). Think of them as organic whole foods. Botanical terpenes extracted from plants other than cannabis can be found in topicals, so if you have an allergy to certain essential oils, be sure to check the ingredients.

Cannabis-derived terps also fall in the botanical bucket. Really, they’re the same, and there’s no difference from the myrcene you’d find in mangos and the myrcene you find in cannabis. In analogous terms, consider these the cold pressed juices of the world that preserve terpene content by flash-freezing buds right at harvest. Like cold pressed juices they retain more beneficial compounds, but are also less common because of the costly methods to extract them (it takes a lot of good, hard grown bud to make a little bit).

So if terpenes are naturally occurring, why would anyone go through the effort and costs to design their own?

Cannabis capitalism. Tobacco behemoth Altria recently began making moves to patent designer strains with specific terpene concentrations that offer specialized flavor and aroma profiles. They hope these strains will create consistent nuanced entourage effects and associated therapeutic benefits that would make any marketing department giddy with glee.

The net net?

Proceed with caution, especially with consuming synthetic terpenes which are often found in vape cartridges and products that use distillate or isolate.

While synthetic terpenes may end up being entirely safe, just like GMO foods there is always a risk of health effects from synthetics and their chemical residues left behind. Unlike GMO foods, there’s currently no research on cannabis additives, and it’s still unknown how well synthetic and natural terpenes interact together and with the body.

The technology is also still under development and many of the professionals behind it don’t yet fully understand botanical and synthetic terpenes. Until we have more answers, you should look for terpenes derived from other plants and products labeled as “whole plant,” which tells you that the content of the product is as close to the original cannabis plant as possible.

And when in doubt, ask.

Ask the budtender. Ask the dispensary. Ask the company who produces a product what’s in it, does it contain botanical or synthetic terpenes, along with whether they’re adding essential oils too.

Whole plant products with all of the cannabinoids and terpenes intact are still your best bet.

Someday cannabis will follow food, and there will come a point when brands are required to be more transparent and list all ingredients. Until then it falls in our hands to set the standard and demand high quality, safe, transparent, and effective products with our dollars.