Terpenes: In a Class of Their Own

Terpenes are a large class of strong-smelling compounds usually associated with botanicals. Terpenes are hydrocarbons while their associated terpenoids (also known as isoprenoids) are terpenes that have some rearrangement or oxidation to create assorted functional groups (alcohols, esters etc.).

Terpenes are the major components of many resins and turpentine (from which the term terpene is derived). Terpenes and terpenoids are the primary compounds in many types of botanical and essential oils. These oils are used as natural flavor and fragrance sources and are often used in the perfume industry. Historically, terpenes, through essential oils and botanicals, are used in holistic practices and aromatherapy.


In nature, terpenes are found in many common plants like roses and coniferous trees. These terpenes and terpenoids have natural pesticide properties and are thought to be part of the plant’s defense systems. The terpene compounds are off-gassed by plants and trees in warm weather and are partly responsible for the characteristic blue haze of the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. This cloud of terpenes can act as natural cloud seeding and is studied as a natural form of air pollution.

Many consumer products including perfume, flavorings, wine and beer are dependent upon terpenes for the character, flavor and fragrances they impart upon the products. The flavor and aroma of hops are critical to beer, especially Myrcene, beta-Pinene, beta-Caryophyllene and alpha-Humulene. The floral notes of wine grapes can be traced back to terpenoids such as Damascene and Geraniol, which are also found in roses. The diversity of terpenes and terpenoids are recognized by all the range of scents and flavors they produce from the pine scent of Pinene (the most widely encountered terpene in nature) to the lavender and mint notes associated with Linalool. A good resource in looking at more terpenes is the essential oil data base. (http://nipgr.res.in/Essoildb/index.html)

The newest botanical product to be profiled for terpenes is Cannabis. Since Cannabis and Hops are both part of the Cannabacea family, it is not hard to see why terpene analysis of Cannabis would be of interest.

Cannabis Beer
Cannabis growers and Cannabis seed companies are becoming increasing interested in creating terpene profiles for their products. Companies such as the Green House Seed Company, was one of the first companies to post terpene profiles of their seed products. Matt Haskin, president of CannaSafe Analytical, a Cannabis testing laboratory, sees the demand for terpene testing growing at a rapid pace.  (See “The Wild West of Analytical Testing.”)

Terpene profiles are a way to characterize and fingerprint different varieties of Cannabis.  Research in the Cannabis industry recognizes the therapeutic benefit of terpenes for a range of medical conditions. Terpenes such as beta-Myrcene and Nerolidol have sedative properties. Limonene has anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that the terpenes in Cannabis work synergistically with the cannabinoid compounds to enhance the therapeutic effect. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x/)

The extraction and analysis of terpenes in the analytical laboratory from the various Cannabis product matrices can be challenging especially in regards to sample preparation, clean-up and matrix effects. In many cases, related terpenes have the same or similar mass spectral fingerprints by GC/MS making them difficult to identify in complex mixtures where many isomers or similar compounds are present. In addition to difficult analyses, there is a lack of suitable reference materials and standards.

In late 2014, SPEX CertiPrep was proud to be one of the first standard companies to produce terpene standards to aid the analytical community with their terpene profile analyses. Our terpene standard mixes allowed the analyst to identify and quantitate a wide range of common terpenes found in hops and Cannabis.

Terpene analysis has always been an important component of many research areas including atmospheric chemistry, agricultural science, biochemistry, and environmental science to name a few.  In industries dependent upon flavor and fragrance products, terpene profiles are part of their routine analytical testing procedures.  As more uses for terpenes are discovered, beyond their flavor and fragrance potentials, the need for analytical methods and standards will increase.  SPEX CertiPrep is proud to be in the forefront of this new increased interest in terpene testing by supplying our customers with high quality terpene standards.


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