You know that old saying about any publicity being good publicity? Well, last fall, terpenes—aromatic molecules from the plant world—got a PR blast that tested the downside; the terpene linalool was cited as a dissolved insect-killer in LaCroix sparkling water, of all things.
There is a whiff of truth in there, as we’ll see below. But it isn’t the whole story of this plant-based healer and helper, and many other terpenes like it.
Not by a long shot.
Terpenes are presently top of mind for many people, even for those not familiar with the technical term. For one, there’s the ever-growing popularity of terpene-loaded essential oils, dropped into diffusers, as we seek solace from stress with calming scents. They’re a hallmark of flavorful craft beers and herbal-infused teas and remedies. Not to mention we’re on the cusp of a red-hot American revival of a terpene-laden crop: hemp.
It’s clear that we are living in the golden age of terpenes.
Having terpenes in our day-to-day makes life a little better. Commercial farmers and scientific researchers are all embracing that idea. But consumers need a better understanding of these natural plant compounds that permeate daily life, and their promising health benefits.
Which brings us back to the insecticide accusation. Wouldn’t you know…there was a lawyer behind it. A Chicago law firm went after the favorite whistle-wetter of the millennial crowd, alleging in a class-action lawsuit that LaCroix water was laced with a chemical found in cockroach poisons. The culprit they named: linalool, a terpenoid found in more than 200 species of plants.
It smells like lavender, which isn’t too scary. But calling it an insecticide still might be enough to frighten you away, until you consider linalool also has been shown in multiple scientific studies to have promising anti-inflammatory properties  and the ability to calm anxiety and be a neuroprotectant 
So which is it? Cockroach poison or health promoter?
The answer is complex. Linalool is one of more than 20,000 identified terpenes that give plants their distinctive fragrances and provide them with natural chemical defenses. These complex molecules have myriad uses. A 2016 report in the journal Current Protocols in Plant Biology notes terpenes “have great industrial uses as flavors, fragrances, high grade lubricants, biofuels, agricultural chemicals and medicines”. 
When Shakespeare noted that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, he was poetically praising the terpene geraniol, which is added in small quantities to foods to accentuate citrus notes. This single terpene is found in a veritable grocery list of items, including beverages, baked goods, chewing gum and candies, frozen dairy, gravies and meat products, according to a National Library of Medicine chemical database.
In addition to the aforementioned study of linalool’s potential benefits, lab research on other medical applications for terpenes has shown these compounds have antibacterial and antifungal properties , as well as the ability to inhibit tumor growth .
And what of that lawsuit’s linalool insecticide claim? The fact-checking website Snopes pointed to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that notes:“As a pesticide, linalool is intended for use indoors to control pests (fleas and ticks) on pets. … Linalool was approved by (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) as a direct food additive and was given Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for use as a flavor in both human and animal food.”
Here’s more good news. The recently passed 2018 Farm Bill will encourage further study because it cleared the way for commercial hemp production. Hemp and related plants in the species Cannabis sativa L.contain more than 200 terpenes , each of which may prove to have significant beneficial effects. State governments still have to sort out the legal ramifications of this hemp move—more work for lawyers—but with fewer barriers to research, many scientific discoveries await.
Meanwhile, those Chicago lawyers ringing alarm bells about linalool did do us all a favor (and a flavor). They’ve actually helped raise awareness of the many benefits of terpenes, so let’s toast that by raising a glass of LaCroix.
Peter Calfee is CEO of Gofire™, a digital healthcare company committed to making alternative health accessible through standardizing dose regimens by delivery and the patient’s targeted condition. Mr. Calfee is a health-technology entrepreneur and investor with more than nine years of experience in the life sciences and alternative health industry.
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