Terpenes and their flavors: If you’ve felt calm smelling lavender or been satisfied eating a dish with rosemary, you’re most likely sensing the terpenes in them. These organic compounds exist in almost all species of flowers, plants, and fruits, producing their distinct scents and flavors and making up the primary ingredients of their essential oil.
Without a doubt, terpenes play a major role in producing the unique scents and flavors we associate with just about any botanical species.
Check out our terpene flavor chart below to learn more about the flavor profiles of these organic compounds and how you can spot them in everyday flowers and plants.
Terpenes’ Role in Creating Flavors and Scents
Terpenes are naturally occurring chemical compounds that produce the distinct flavors and scents of all flowers, plants, fruits, and trees. Some terpenes attract pollinators, which is essential for plan reproduction and maintaining natural diversity. Meanwhile, others boost the immune system of plants, heal them from damage, and protect them from harsh weather and predators like insects or foraging animals.
Existing studies have shown that terpenes also produce flavors and scents with positive effects on humans. For instance, limonene creates the sweet and zesty flavors of citrus fruits like orange, lime, and lemon, serving as an additive in foods and beverages, cosmetics, cleaning products, and insect repellants. It’s also used in aromatic oils that induce calming effects.
Terpenes are sometimes interchanged with a term called terpenoids. The reality is that they’re different. Terpenes are a live plant’s natural compounds, while terpenoids result from oxidized terpenes. The former is also more volatile than the latter.
Common Terpenes and Their Aromatic Profiles
Terpenes play a critical role in creating natural flavors and scents associated with many different types of plants and are essential to many industries, including food, fragrance, and cosmetics. Learning about terpene flavor profiles can help you know which to use for different purposes.
Aromatic profile: Earthy, sweet, piney
Alpha-pinene is often associated with Christmas because it produces the distinct aroma of pine and conifer trees. Beyond that, it’s also the most abundant naturally occurring terpene in spices and herbs like rosemary and sage and fruits like oranges.
Aromatic profile: Spicy, peppery, woody
When you recognize the scent of basil or oregano, or cracked pepper from afar, it’s the beta-caryophyllene working. It’s the only terpene that can interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system (CB2).
Aromatic profile: Earthy, piney
Beta-pinene has a woody-green scent often associated with trees like cedar, pine, and conifer; herbs like dill, eucalyptus, and parsley; and fruits like oranges, lemons, and mangoes.
Aromatic profile: Earthy, floral
Aromatic profile: Sweet, piney, woody
Aromatic profile: Floral, citrusy
Citronellol has a fresh rosy and citrusy aroma often associated with lemongrass, chamomile, and geranium. It’s one of the major components of citronella oil, which is used as an insect repellant and antifungal agent.
Aromatic profile: Spicy, minty, fresh
Herbs such as eucalyptus, rosemary, and sage contain eucalyptol, known for its fresh, minty scent and spicy-cooling taste. It can also repel insects, remove bacteria in household grime, and fight off rodents.
Aromatic profile: Sweet, floral, citrusy
Geraniol produces the rose-like and citrus scent of many herbs and fruits such as palmarosa, citronella, geranium, and lemon. Like citronellol, it makes up the major components of citronella oil.
Aromatic profile: Earthy, spicy
Humelene is the earthy and spicy terpene behind cloves, basil, oregano, black pepper, and rosemary, among other herbs and spices. It has anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and antibacterial properties. It’s also known for suppressing appetite, promoting weight loss.
Aromatic profile: Citrusy, bitter
Aromatic profile: Floral, spicy
Linalool creates the floral, clean, and slightly spicy scent of some herbs and spices such as lavender, laurel, cinnamon, rosewood, and mint. It’s often used as a sedative and pain reliever due to its distinct aroma.
Aromatic profile: Fruity, earthy
Myrcene acts as the active sedating principle of hops and lemongrass. It also produces the fruity and earthy aroma of basil, mangos, and Myrcia sphaerocarpa, a medicinal shrub that Latin Americans traditionally used to treat diabetes, diarrhea, dysentery, and hypertension.
Aromatic profile: Woody, citrusy
Ocimene has a sweet and woodsy scent, which helps plants fend off pests. This unique terpene can be found in parsley, tarragon, lavender, orchid flowers, and bergamot.
Aromatic profile: Sweet, woody, citrusy
Para-cymene is a major component in many essential oils, especially cumin and thyme. It produces a woody but citrusy flavor and scent, useful in enhancing food, healing coughs, and boosting the effects of pesticides.
Aromatic profile: Floral, sweet, fruity
Terpineol produces a sweet aroma usually linked to lilac and peach. It occurs in many essential oils such as Cupressaceae, Pinaceae, and lavandin. It’s often used as an immunostimulant and antibacterial and antiviral agent.
Aromatic profile: Woody, floral, piney
Terpinolene’s woody and floral scent makes it an effective sedative and insect repellant. It also possesses antioxidant and anticancer properties. Terpinolene is found in essential oils such as citrus, mentha, juniperus, Myristica species, and parsnip oil (pastinaca sativa).
Aromatic profile: Sweet, citrusy
Valencene is the terpene behind the sweet, sour, and fresh taste and smell of citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits. Studies have shown that this terpene helps improve mood, reduce inflammation, treat allergies, and enhance food flavors.
Know Your Terpenes
You don’t have to look far to find terpenes. You can smell them in essential oils, perfumes, food additives, cosmetic products, and medical treatments like curcumin and tea tree oil. They’re all around us for a reason—their aromas produce therapeutic and healing effects, so millions of people use them to relieve anxiety, reduce inflammation, improve skin texture, and more.
The more you know about the different types of terpenes, the better you can determine which ones to use for specific purposes. Whether it’s for their aromatic, flavorful, or medicinal properties, keeping yourself informed will mean a better end product in virtually any application.