What Are Terpenes?
A Quick Overview of the Building Blocks of Smell and Flavor
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.