Thanks to the dreadfully slow but steady crawl toward legalization, more and more people are turning to cannabis as medicine or recreation.
Led by gummies, cannabis edibles have quickly gobbled up a massive share of the $5 billion cannabis market—with a year-over-year sales growth of more than 20% in 2021—and total edibles sales are projected to reach $8 billion by 2025.
The industry is getting crowded but it’s still a goldrush. And it’s the perfect time for ambitious edibles producers to stake their claim with high-quality, standout cannabis products.
But there’s one big problem that every edibles maker must contend with: cannabis extracts are inherently bitter.
Ricardo Baca, former Editor in Chief of The Cannabist, said “One hundred percent of the edibles market is focused on removing that recognizable scent and flavor of the cannabis plant and replacing it with something that’s more aesthetically familiar.”
In fact, an entirely new industry has emerged within the $1.4 billion cannabis edibles market—whose sole purpose is overcoming the bitter and potentially off-putting flavors of marijuana.
So what can you do if your edibles come out too bitter?
There are a few different directions to take when it comes to fixing bitterness in edibles—but first let’s take a look at the science of bitterness and flavor.
How bitterness works
As we learned in school, bitterness is one of the five taste sensations (along with sweet, sour, salty, and umami) that are perceptible by the tongue—and one that is particularly useful for keeping us alive.
Many toxic plants and substances share similarities in molecular structures. So the ability to detect bitterness evolved as a “last chance” defense mechanism (once the toxin is already in your mouth!) causing an unpleasant experience—hopefully not too late.
Research has found that human taste receptors type 2 (T2Rs) and G-proteins like gustducin are responsible for our ability to taste bitter compounds. When you consume something bitter—let’s say quinine from the tonic in your G&T—the quinine compound binds to G-protein-coupled receptors like gustducin, which release several enzymes the taste cell uses to transmit the response via neurons to produce the cognitive experience of bitter.
Scientifically, bitter substances are rated relative to quinine (with a reference index of 1), ranging to the most bitter natural substance (gentian root) which has an index value of 5 million.
Okay so we know how bitterness works—but what can you do about bitterness in marijuana edibles?
Managing bitterness in cannabis edibles
Most cannabinoid extracts are intensely bitter, earthy, and often difficult to work with. When the raw product has such a dramatic impact on flavor, creating a formula for an infused product that tastes good and also delivers the expected amount of THC or CBD can require a bit of finesse and scientific precision.
For example, when it comes to emulsified cannabinoid products, the carrier oils and preservatives can actually intensify the bitterness. During the process of emulsification, when the cannabinoid particles are broken down into their smallest size, the increased surface area means more likelihood of transferring bitter flavors to the taste receptors.
Some people are proponents of keeping the herbaceous, bitter flavor of cannabis products—to remind people that what they’re consuming is medicine and not candy, hoping to limit accidental ingestion or overindulgence.
For those who don’t follow that school of thought, there are 3 main ways to deal with the inherent bitterness of cannabis:
- Incorporate the flavor
- Mask the flavor
- Use a lower concentration
Incorporating bitterness flavor in edibles
The cheapest approach to bitterness in cannabis edibles starts with accepting the naturally bitter flavor of cannabis and working with it.
Adding other familiar flavors that are also bitter—such as cocoa, coffee, peppermint, and hops—can trick the brain into thinking, “Even though this tastes bitter, it’s a bitter flavor I enjoy.”
One method that any chef could tell you is taking advantage of the Maillard reaction (if it makes sense for your flavor profile). The browning of sugars and proteins adds a bitterness and aromatic complexity that we find pleasant and helps incorporate other bitter tastes for an overall positive flavor experience.
Bitterness can also be balanced by adding natural sweeteners—but that may not do much for the aftertaste, and can affect your calorie count and labeling. The bitter effect can also be impacted by sour ingredients like lemon juice or citric acid—but again that changes the whole flavor profile and limits your options.
Many consumers acknowledge that bitterness in cannabis edibles is just part of the experience; a small price to pay for the intended effect, much like alcohol or caffeine.
But trust a wizened old food scientist and highly decorated flavor maven: it doesn’t have to be that way.
Bitterness masking in edibles
Masking flavors is a relatively low-tech approach that is widely used in the edibles industry. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the natural bitterness of the plant extract by adding ingredients that cover up or block bitterness receptors on the tongue.
One such technique is called microencapsulation, where a hollow sugar molecule (cyclodextrin) attracts and contains the smaller cannabinoid molecules, and carries them past the tongue’s bitterness receptors into the stomach where the sugar dissolves and releases the THC or CBD into the bloodstream.
There are plenty of other all-natural food science compounds and ingredients for masking bitterness (including plant-based non-nutritive sweeteners, seaweed extracts, and fruit-derived essential oils) but we’ll get to that.
Using lower concentration of cannabis extract per volume
One simple way to manage bitterness is to make a bigger edible per dose. Minor adjustments in a batch’s concentration per volume can perceptibly reduce the bitterness in each edible.
Obviously this isn’t always feasible for existing cannabis products needing a flavor tune-up—it could impact packaging, labeling, regulatory registration, etc.
Plus at scale, even slight adjustments in recipe volume can affect your product costs in a big way.
Beyond balance: the future of the edibles industry
For many consumers who are new to cannabis—especially those in the “Baby Boomer” generation—edibles are the preferred method for dosing.
So this problem of bitterness in edibles has to be solved.
There are plenty of bitterness masking ingredients available—but not all of them work well for cannabis; and if they do, maybe only partially.
Finding the best one for your edibles recipe could mean expensive rounds of prototyping—and even then, with all the options available, how do you know you aren’t missing out on something that works even better?
As food scientists and chemistry nerds, we at Elevated Edibles are always searching for more effective ways to achieve the holy grail of bitterness masking for cannabis edibles.
We’ve put in countless lab hours—so you don’t have to—scientifically testing the myriad individual and combined ingredients available on the bitterness-masking market…and we’ve come up with a somewhat remarkable solution that’s all-natural, highly effective, and unique in the industry.
Read the case study here.