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The Stinky, The Sweet and The Science of Cannabis Compounds

Abstrax Tech uncovers the true sources of Cannabis’ unique aromatic characteristics.

Some time ago, the Cannabis community came to the understanding that there’s more to the magic of this plant than lonely cannabinoids. Terpenes served as a tipping point and ignited a desire for more knowledge, and for years they offered a better way to categorize and consume products – based on the limited information our community had access to, that is. While these aromatic compounds greatly expanded our understanding (or at the very least, a thirst for it), we all knew the day would come when access and experimentation bloomed into a deeper comprehension of mysterious canna compounds missing from the equation.

That day arrived on October 12, 2023 via a press release from Abstrax Tech, Inc. announcing an exciting discovery of “many key aroma classes with diverse functionality, each responsible for some of the most desirable aromatic qualities found in high quality modern Cannabis.”

The Scientists

Abstrax Tech is a research and development company based in Tustin, California. While they formulate and sell terpene blends, their reach extends beyond the simplicity of a supplier – with a heavy emphasis on education. The company has “successfully lobbied to legalize hydrocarbon (BHO/PHO) extraction in Canada, discovered an entirely new class of compounds in Cannabis that are the true source of its skunky aroma, and partnered with six different universities in ongoing research studies.”

One of their studies – ongoing since 2019 and in partnership with 710 Labs, SepSolve Analytical and Markes International – has gained attention after its recent publication and Editor’s Choice in ACS Omega, a peer-reviewed, weekly journal by The American Chemical Society. The paper, titled “Minor, Nonterpenoid Volatile Compounds Drive the Aroma Differences of Exotic Cannabis,” is available to the public for free on pubs.acs.org and highlights these exciting new “key aroma classes.”

If a 10-plus page scientific whitepaper isn’t your idea of light reading, you can hop over to the Abstrax Instagram (@abstraxtech) for some great breakdowns of the research findings. But since you’re already here, why not have a taste of our takeaways?

The Science

Typical terpene profiles have offered little relative differences when cultivar data is compared side-by-side. If not terpenes, what are the true sources of Cannabis’ unique aromatic characteristics? To find out, Abstrax Tech gathered and analyzed 31 hash rosin samples from dispensaries around Los Angeles. These results yielded traditional terpene data as well as a wealth of new information about compounds not previously verified in Cannabis. The data was paired with a sensory panel evaluation performed by seven untrained Cannabis consumers, “in an effort to emulate a typical Cannabis consumer sensory experience.”

The study looked at strains currently popular on consumer sources such as Leafly and Weedmaps. Each was rated by the sensory panel to determine its aroma properties and sorted according to its “exotics” score. For this study, Abstrax defined “exotics” as “varieties that are unusually sweet or savory,” and utilized a scale of 0-100. This sensory data was compared to chemical analysis to identify the unique, non-terpenoid compounds contributing to each strain’s aromatic qualities. This led the team to several new and exciting discoveries in the field of “flavorants” – a group defined by esters, alcohols, heteroaromatics, aldehydes and volatile sulfur compounds.

The Savory

One of those discoveries was indole – the chemical base for quite a few familiar compounds in nature, including melatonin and tryptophan. It was previously noted in Cannabis smoke, but its newly identified omnipresence among the study’s hash rosin samples suggests some interesting new possibilities: Not only is indole responsible for the “prototypical” Cannabis aroma (think earthy and floral), but it may even play a part in its perceived effects. 

Skatole is a member of the indole family, but this stinky string of molecules has a slightly more fascinating claim to fame. As a result of tryptophan breaking down during digestion, it’s responsible for the stench of mammalian and bird feces! But there’s no need to skip your favorite “stinky” smoke like the skatole-containing strain GMO, as this compound’s scent changes with its concentration and even encompasses a wide range of aromas from savory to chemical. The fragrance and food industries have utilized its diverse aromatic outputs for many years – it’s just our community’s first time getting familiar.

The Sweet

Volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) are probably another first for many of us. Some of their prenylated forms were previously known to cause the “skunky, gas-like” characteristics in Cannabis. However, the team at Abstrax Tech has uncovered a new class of these VSCs. “Tropical Volatile Sulfur Compounds” were found to have a fruity twist akin to sulfuric citrus – an unsurprising revelation considering their presence in “tropical fruits such as passionfruit and grapefruit.”

Esters encapsulate another important role in Cannabis aroma. These common compounds are found in “nearly every fruit” and Abstrax has identified over 30 in Cannabis with a “wide range of sweet or fruity related aromas.” A single strain can contain many of these esters and in its own unique combination. According to the study, a popular cultivar known as Banana Scream contains over 15 esters alone – and “each with a different aroma descriptor ranging from fruity, pineapple or banana.” 

The study also identified a handful of “structurally unique compounds.” A bouquet of grapelike aromas is produced by methyl, dimethyl and ethyl anthranilate. Mild, sweet, honey scents spawn from Phenethyl n-butyrate, isobutyrate, and n-propanoate – three discoveries that only appear present in “more recently bred” varieties of this particular panel (namely, Papaya Peach and Juiceman). And finally, an answer for the creamy coconut taste that creeps onto the palate through so many strains: a lactone identified as 6-amyl-α-pyrone. It’s found in peaches and produced by a common soil fungus.

Now that you’ve been doused in a potpourri of new knowledge, it’s time to chat about why it matters – because budtenders around the nation probably won’t be bombarded with requests for the “highest-hitting 6-amyl-ALPHA-pyrone strain” anytime soon. But let’s face it … the importance of advancing research in Cannabis is massive – especially if we want to dive deeper into its medical benefits and cater to cultivation. 

abstraxtech.com | @abstraxtech

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of All Magazines.

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