So, what are terpenes?
At their most basic form, terpenes are organic compounds with strong odors and tastes that are derived from isoprene–another organic compound. Terpenes use the molecular base provided by isoprene to create a wide array of variations (e.g. monoterpenes, diterpenes, polyterpenes). Despite their variation, all these terpenes are the building blocks for the tastes and smells we are familiar with. Often, terpenes are confused with terpenoids, and while they are similar, they are not the same. Unlike terpenes, terpenoids contain additional functional groups.
The most abundant source of natural terpenes are in plants. Overtime, plants developed and tailored terpenes to ward off predators and encourage pollinators to visit them, but humans too have found incredible and diverse uses for these small, molecular compounds. Although they are hidden from the naked eye, terpenes have a profound impact on how we smell and taste.
How are terpenes used?
Terpenes are most commonly known for their appearance in standard cooking ingredients. For example, a-Pienene is present in herbs such as basil, rosemary, and parsley, giving them all their distinct, pine smell. But terpenes aren’t just limited to cooking, they’re also used for enhancing flavor and aromas in food and beverage products.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are considered the building blocks of smell and flavor. They are organic compounds with very strong smell and taste. Terpenes are derived from isoprene–another organic compound–and come in a wide array of variations (e.g. monoterpenes, diterpenes, polyterpenes). The most common source of natural terpenes are plants but even some insects can produce terpenes on their own.
Though you may not know it, you encounter terpenes every day. One common place you will come across terpenes is the kitchen. For example, the terpene limonene gives your standard lemon juice and lime juice its distinct, citrusy scent. Isolated terpenes are used in cosmetics, perfumes, bath products, and much more.
What are Essential Oils?
To understand the difference between terpenes and essential oils, we must also know what essential oils (EOs) are. Essential oils are hydrophobic, volatile compounds acquired by processing plants. This is done using multiple methods but the most common ones are distillation and cold pressing. Essential oils are typically named after the plant they are derived from (ex. tea tree EO comes from tea tree leaves) and are called “essential oils” because they are considered to contain the “essence” of a plant.
In recent years, essential oils have gained popularity for their declared health benefits. Many people use EOs in a diffuser in their homes to create a comfortable, nice smelling atmosphere.
So, what’s the difference between Terpenes and Essential Oils?
Even after reading what terpenes and essential oils are, you may still be confused. For starters, the primary difference between terpenes and essential oils are that essential oils contain terpenes and a variety of other compounds as well. Because EOs are using an entire plant’s extracts, it will contain terpenes and other hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, isolated terpenes are comprised of just themselves. Isolated terpenes are selectively removed from a plant so while pine oil may contain alpha-pinene, gamma-terpinene, and beta-pienene (along with other non-terpene compounds), your alpha-pinene isolate is going to be almost entirely made up of the alpha-pinene terpene. Another difference is that essential oils require a lot of raw materials. According to Earth Science Journal, in order to produce 1 pound of lavender essential oil, a total of 250 pounds of raw lavender is required. Terpenes do not need nearly this much raw material to be extracted.
In summary, while all essential oils contain terpenes they also contain many other compounds while terpenes consist only of themselves. We hope this post helped clarify the difference between these two easily confused substances!
Chemistry is an integral part of proper terpene use. Whether you are using them for essential oils, bath products, or any other nice smelling project, understanding the properties of terpenes is important to make a project successful. To explain terpene chemistry, we must first understand lipids.
What are lipids?
Lipids are naturally occurring, organic compounds primarily distinguished by their long, nonpolar (hydrocarbon) chains. These compounds are typically insoluble in water (think of how oil sits on top of water) and need a non-polar solvent to dissolve. When in a liquid state, lipids are referred to as oils, but when they are solid, they are often called fats. You likely know about lipids already through your exposure to human nutrition. Lipids make up fatty acids (though not all lipids are fatty acids), which come in three forms: saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Saturated lipids are ones that have a chain with only single bonds. Unsaturated lipids have a chain with one double bond and polyunsaturated lipids have chains with multiple double bonds. The most well known lipid is trans-fat, which is an unsaturated fat. Because of the double bond of trans-fat, it has a higher melting point and is more difficult for the body to break down and metabolise.
Terpenes are unique lipids
Now that we understand what lipids are, we can look at terpenes. Terpenes are non-saponifiable lipids, or simple lipids, and do not contain fatty acids. Rather, terpenes have an isoprene base and are categorized depending on the number of isoprene units it has. Terpenes with two isoprene units are called monoterpenes, three units are sesquiterpenes, four units are diterpenes, five units are sesterterpenes, and six are triterpenes. An example of a monoterpene is myrcene, know for its pleasant clove smell. Terpenes come in a wide array of variations, which explains the countless smells and tastes that these naturally occurring compounds have.
In a past article, we mentioned that you should be cautious of MCT oil because of its connection to lipid pneumonia. While MCT oil and terpenes are both lipids, terpenes do not cause lipid pneumonia. Unlike MCT oil, terpenes do not contain fats or fatty acids. Lipid pneumonia is caused by fats entering the lungs which causes inflammation and irritation. Without fats, lipid pneumonia will not occur, meaning your terpenes are safe to use in aromatic products.
Now that you understand the basic composition of terpenes, you can more accurately use them in your products. To get started, visit our blog on mixing terpene isolates and blends. Already know what you’re doing? Check out our terpene blends and isolates to make a selection!