Even people who know nothing about cannabis know that it can have a strong smell. Cannabis flower is packed with aromatic terpenes, which give the plant its many strong and distinctive odors. The potency of terpenes carries over to the flavor of the plant, making it taste, as Canadian cannabis industry consultant Brandon Wright puts it, “very green.” This “green” flavor can be a challenge for edibles producers looking to add cannabis or cannabinoids to their products. Should they mask cannabis flavor? Should they lean into it? What do consumers want?
Wright opened his first company after the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision that the production and distribution of cannabis edibles for medical users was constitutionally protected. At the dawn of Canadian edibles, he says, the two main sources of cannabinoids were cannabutter (butter infused with cannabis) and Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), a high-concentration cannabis oil extract made with solvents such as naptha. “In the early days, a lot of things looked, tasted, and smelled ‘green.’ That’s just not the case anymore,” he adds. Instead, edibles producers now often use tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) distillates or isolates, which eventually took over from RSO as the cheapest and strongest source of cannabinoids for edibles.
Wright also notes that, among regulated markets, THC distillates seem to be the most common cannabinoid additives due to the ease of masking their flavors. “Distillates in particular are a fairly well-refined product,” he says, adding that the distillate process already takes out a lot of what you’d consider that green, “weedy” taste. “What you’re left with isn’t exactly a chemical taste; it would be akin to the alcohol taste in a rum ball. It doesn’t taste like alcohol, but you know alcohol is in it. There’s a sense there’s something there underlying this that is more than just the flavor of the candy. That’s how I know it’s infused.”
For some, the use of distillates has made edibles too easy to create. Christina Wong, a chef who develops cannabis-infused recipes, is tired of distillate in edibles. “My biggest pet peeve is people who have any edible or drink product [can just] add a [THC] distillate or isolate, and say ‘Here we go, I have an edible,’” she says. “I know it’s very hard to be a producer, to get a product to market, finding a co-packer and somebody who can create those products. Adding distillate and isolate is the ‘easy’ button. Anybody can add distillate/isolate to a product and call it an edible, and there are a lot of interesting ones. But personally, I’m on a mission to promote higher quality ingredients and educate the consumer about how they should buy quality.”
While distillates and isolates have little flavor in lower doses, they can also be acrid; skill and practice are needed to incorporate them into a polished final edible product. Wright says that THC distillate between 85% and 95% potency is a plant-synthesized chemical so strong it’s “akin to turpentine.” Wong calls the taste of some distillates and isolates “bitter and horrible” and says that she’d rather work with the full plant and its many flavors instead of orienting her recipes around hiding the chemical taste of added cannabinoids.
Potency also influences distillate and isolate bitterness, which Wright says is one of the limits on the desirability of distillate-based edibles. “In the regulated market, almost exclusively, you’ll see more distillates being used,” he says, “because then people don’t have to think about the problem of masking the greenness. But [as potency increases], some of the bitterness will remain.” He adds that a trained food scientist is an important component of your R&D process.