Let’s be real. The majority of cannabis-infused products, both CBD and THC, taste downright awful.
The reason why is simple: cannabinoid extracts are intensely bitter, earthy, and difficult to work with, owing respectively to the cannabinoids themselves, terpenes/flavonoids, and the infinitesimally complex interactions between them and other ingredients. Formulating infused foods and beverages is a huge challenge when the active weights the flavor profile so heavily–it’s like flying a paper airplane with a marble on one wing. Right now consumers are buying products for their effects, not for their taste. But it won’t always be that way, and the companies who are first to offer both efficacy and good taste will have an enduring market advantage.
In emulsified cannabinoid products, carrier oils, preservatives, and surfactants also bring their own challenging tastes to the table. Nanoemulsions, a common way of reconciling cannabinoid oils and water, are even more bitter due to their small particle size, which creates more surface area for bitter compounds to interact with taste receptors. (Fortunately, SōRSE is non-nano, which allows for masking any bitter flavors with minimal sugars and additives.)
Increasing the concentration of active increases the bitterness, a particularly difficult issue for CBD-only products, which require increased potency to overcome CBD’s relatively weak action at endocannabinoid receptors. Add to all this the fact that many in the industry come from the cannabis world and are new to food and beverage (full disclosure: myself included), and you’ve got a perfect recipe for terrible-tasting cannabis products.
So, what are we going to do to fix it?
Options for dealing with bitterness fall into two main categories: incorporation or masking, which can be thought of as either going with the flow, or fighting it.
Incorporation (going with the flow) means accepting the naturally bitter and complex flavor of cannabis and working with it rather than trying to hide it. It means thinking of the flavor of the extract as an ingredient in the overall sensory formulation. Because bitterness originally evolved as a way to disincentivize eating toxic foods, it is the only one of the primary taste dimensions that is unpleasant; generally, we experience sweet, sour, salty, and umami tastes positively. However, bitterness is acomponent in many pleasant tastes. Flavors that are naturally bitter, such as peppermint, chocolate, coffee, citrus, or beer, trick the brain into incorporating the bitterness into the familiar flavor, such that it doesn’t register as bitter but rather “peppermint, which is a little bitter.” Many actives are bitter; customers can accept that bitterness is the cost they must pay for the effect, or even celebrate and cultivate it, much as we do with caffeine or alcohol.
The trouble with this approach is it limits flavor options severely. The market is absolutely laden with chocolates, sour candies, and peppermint mouth sprays. We need to evolve and be prepared to match the sophistication of the upcoming landscape.
Masking (fighting it) is actually a more traditional, low-tech option that has recently gotten a high-tech makeover. The low-tech version works similarly to incorporation but has the goal of completely erasing the taste of the cannabis rather than complementing it–think dark chocolate coffee brownies. The modern version involves bitter blockers as a process aid, which interfere with the taste buds’ ability to perceive bitterness.
Masking sparks controversy: even though we can eliminate the herbaceous, bitter taste of cannabis, should we? Some people argue that cannabis shouldn’t taste good, because its bitterness will make people more inclined to think of it as medicine. Or that without the distinctive taste, accidental ingestion will happen. Considering cannabis has no practical lethal dose, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.