Is Terpene Labelling Needed?

Liz Filmer
03 Dec 2021

 In recent years, terpenes have moved out of the shadows of die-hard cannabis lovers and have become better known and appreciated for their role in making a cannabis strain unique. Terpenes play a big part in the taste, aroma, and mouthfeel of all cannabis products.

However, with fame comes haters, and some groups claim that terpene amounts should be listed on legal product labels. They argue that the natural chemicals responsible for weeds' fruity, gassy or earthy smell are pharmacologically active and could make some people sick.

Critics argue that cannabis labels are already overcrowded and that terpene research is still too much of an underdeveloped, emerging area and that as a result, the information available is not reliable. 

It is also argued that terpenes or "essential oils", as they are otherwise known, are a common trait in the plant world. One that does not require warnings when added to cosmetic or hygiene products.

It's a debate gaining momentum in light of new research that shows that the names "indica" or "sativa" could be misleading and contradictory. A team of Canadian and Dutch researchers have surmised that terpenes, not strain names, better describe cannabis varieties and their effects on users.

The International standards organization ASTM leads the "PRO-label" camp. The group is contemplating voluntary guidelines that would see cannabis manufacturers (both cannabis and hemp) label resin products with the total amounts of five common terpenes. Limonene, Myrcene, Pinene, Terpinolene, Caryophyllene.

The guidelines state that terpene labels would be compulsory for medical products but optional for recreational products. However, it doesn't stop there, with ASTM also proposing that manufacturers include additional information. This consists of the origin of terpenes from non-cannabis sources and warnings that products containing more than 10% terpenes could potentially cause harm.

Whilst ASTM guidelines are not legally binding; they often underpin controls in other technical industries. The proposal is up for a vote by a group of cannabis industry members with no deadline set as yet.

Darwin Millard is an ASTM cannabis committee member and chief scientific officer for Final Bell Corp, a cannabis ingredients manufacturer in California. He believes that labels make sense because terpenes are a medically active compound and science is still trying to understand how much of a role they play in the effects of cannabis.

Millard also points out that many terpenes don't survive the extraction process and instead are added to products later. This technically makes the terpenes an added ingredient that consumers should be aware of.

On the other side of the argument, Jason Pickle is the co-founder of Volunteer Botanicals in Christiana, Tennessee. He believes that terpene labels will not add information that is of much use to consumers. His company transforms botanical oils into powdered terpenes, which other manufacturers then use as "added ingredients" in other products. 

"It's challenging to label and regulate a terpene when we don't have the full science behind them; We're regulating something unknown."

Pickle worries that corrupt manufacturers could make ill-founded medical claims about specific blends of terpenes before there is a proper understanding of what the terpenes do together. There is exciting potential for what terpene combinations can do together aside from what we know about them individually. The problem is that we do not have enough data to tell what that is.

In the same vein, the concern is that testing procedures for terpene content are not developed or accurate enough yet to rely on. Testing for Terpenes is expensive and not necessarily correct or reliable. Much of this is down to how volatile the terpenes are. For example, if a product is kept for too long or exposed to heat or light  for extended periods of time, the terpene profile could change and diminish.

This argument clarifies how much we still don't know about the cannabis plant and how all the compounds interact. Will terpene labelling become mandatory? Until we have more extensive research on the topic as a whole, no one can answer that question for definite.

Liz Filmer