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2023 Study: Non-terpenes Drive Cannabis Aroma

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

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Non-terpenes Drive Cannabis Aroma Study

An October 2023 study entitled "Minor, Nonterpenoid Volatile Compounds Drive the Aroma Differences of Exotic Cannabis" that was published in the journal ACS Omega explored non-terpene compounds that may be largely responsible for the distinct fragrance profile that characterizes most cultivars (strains) of cannabis.


"We found clear correlations between key minor compounds never before seen in cannabis that produce some of the most desirable aromas."

A press release from one of the participating extraction companies, Abstrax, stated that the study "found clear correlations between key minor compounds never before seen in cannabis that produce some of the most desirable aromas."

Exotic cannabis aroma spectrum
Exotic cannabis aroma spectrum

"High-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) varieties of Cannabis sativa L., often referred to as simply cannabis, are typically cultivated for consumption due to their intoxicating psychoactive effects," observed the study.


Non-terpenes Drive Cannabis Aroma Observations

The non-terpenes drive cannabis aroma study noted that the terms "indica" and "sativa"—frequently used by cannabis companies, patients, and lifestyle consumers—are "commonly used, but inaccurate."


The terms indica and sativa—frequently used by cannabis companies, patients, and lifestyle consumers—are "commonly used, but inaccurate."

Inaccuracies of Binary Classification

Reported the scientists: "To overcome the inaccuracies of the indica/sativa binary classification and better categorize cannabis varieties based on their psychoactive and aroma characteristics, terpenes have emerged as a prominent focus of research." They also noted that a number of classification schemes, all based on terpene profile, have been proposed over the years.


The study noted recent research in the United States that reported that cannabis falls into three major classes:

  • Terpinolene/ß-myrcene

  • D-limonene/ß-caryophyllene

  • ß-myrcene/pinene

Key volatile compounds that produce specific cannabis aromas
Key volatile compounds that produce specific cannabis aromas

Flavorants Help Define Marijuana Aroma

The study reported that another contributing factor for the aroma of a particular strain is flavorants, a specialized category of phytochemicals that includes alcohols and esters. Other research has indicated that ketones also sometimes play a large role in defining the aroma profiles of different marijuana samples.


"The study reported that another contributing factor for the aroma of a particular strain is flavorants, a specialized category of phytochemicals that includes alcohols and esters."

Like terpenes, flavorants are volatiles and are spread easily through the air. Flavorants can also create similar aromas between marijuana varietals that have different dominant terpenes, the researchers reported.

A mature cannabis plant that is beginning to produce trichomes and appear frosty
A mature cannabis plant

Non-terpenes Drive Cannabis Aroma Conclusions

The researchers made the following conclusions based on their study data.


"We conducted coupled sensory and chemical analyses on 31 different ice hash rosin cannabis extracts to determine how different chemical classes affect the aroma of each. Our sensory analysis revealed highly divergent aroma characteristics for many samples that we broke down into three primary classes: Sweet exotic, prototypical, and savory exotic.


"We found that varieties across both sweet and savory exotic classes often have very similar terpene profiles, indicating that they are not the driving force behind the unique aromatic differences.


"We found that varieties across both sweet and savory exotic classes often have very similar terpene profiles, indicating that they are not the driving force behind the unique aromatic differences."

"Detailed chemical analysis using two-dimensional gas chromatography revealed that minor, non-terpenoid compounds are responsible for this discrepancy. While found in low concentration, often accounting for less than 0.05% of the mass of the samples, their odor impact can be substantial.


"In particular, we identified key classes of compounds that correlated with specific aromas: tropical volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) containing the 3-mercaptohexyl functional group were found in a subset of varieties that produce a strong sulfuric, petroleum-citrus aroma that was easily identified during sensory analysis.

A mature cannabis plant
A mature cannabis plant

Skatole is Extremely Pungent

"Conversely, varieties described as savory or chemical were found to contain skatole, a compound with an extremely pungent chemical aroma. Our results yield a more complete understanding of the unique aromas that cannabis produces and help establish these nonterpenoid compounds as an important part of the phytochemistry of cannabis.

"The discovery that terpenes have less influence on the differentiating characteristics of the aroma of cannabis than traditionally thought may have important ramifications for the legal cannabis industry."

"Furthermore, the discovery that terpenes have less influence on the differentiating characteristics of the aroma of cannabis than traditionally thought may have important ramifications for the legal cannabis industry related to product labeling and marketing, laboratory testing, and quality indicators for end consumers and producers alike."


View the original study.

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