Say Good-Bye to Indica vs Sativa: A New World of Labeling Cannabis

by | Jul 27, 2022

Written by Casia Lanier

Whats the difference between indica vs sativa vs hybrid? This is often the question that consumers ask when purchasing marijuana products.

Medical News Today classifies the physical characteristics of the diverging strains in the following way:

  • Sativa: A tall, slim plant with slender, light green leaves.
  • Indica: A short, bushy plant with broad, dark green leaves.
  • Hybrid: Varying combinations of Sativa and Indica.

Sativa is traditionally thought to stimulate focus and creativity as well as boost energy, while Indica is believed to induce relaxation and sedation, often used for pain relief. Scientists have assumed this ‘head-high’ vs. ‘body-high’ classification of each plant based on user experience. But a new study by PLOS One identifies the flaws in this categorizing system and points to a more complex and complete picture of what consumers are getting and how the current labeling underserves the cannabis market.

Indica vs Sativa? Let’s clear THE AIR ON LABELING

macro image of trichomes
Move over indica vs sativa. It’s time to get up close and personal with cannabis trichomes

The PLOS One study analyzed 90,000 cannabis samples across six states and found that cannabis labels didn’t match the chemical profiles of the strains. It found no difference between a sativa vs indica. The overemphasis on cannabinoids and their effects on consumers led to major inconsistencies.

The study identified that, in addition to cannabinoids, a comprehensive analysis of terpene combinations found in each strand was an important indicator of what kind of cannabis use experience consumers could expect.

Another study in Nature Plants found that strains categorized under the same traditional labeling practice were more chemically and genetically dissimilar than similar.

Even Leafly now states, “There’s little evidence to suggest that Indica and Sativa exhibit a consistent pattern of chemical profiles that would make one inherently sedating and the other uplifting.” The cannabis news resource includes each strain’s cannabinoid and terpene chemical profiles, as confirmed by nationwide testing.

More Focus on Terpenes

Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds found in the trichomes of cannabis plants, or the translucent glands give cannabis its distinct aroma, flavor, color, and stickiness.

The terpene combinations identified in the study fall into three main concentration classes: caryophyllene and limonene, myrcene and pinene, and terpinolene and myrcene. And there is now a push from growers, consumers, and cannabis experts to include terpenes on product labels.

Companies like SC Labs use data to drive new cannabis grouping and labeling practices. They’ve thrown out the old labels of indica vs sativa. With over 250,000 terpene tests, “they have identified six significantly different categories in terms of aroma and taste and have discovered 12-14 archetype profiles based on primary smell groups with subgroup.”

The AK 47 strain is a noteworthy example of misleading labels. This strain won the Sativa Cup in 1999, then went on to win the Indica Cup in 2003. OG Kush is another popular example of two varied strains with the same name. Once a strain enters the market, the initial label is often used to classify the characteristics of that strain across the board. But the margin for naming error, chemical composition, and subsequent consumer experience becomes what the market expects from that strain, which is ultimately unreliable.


indica vs sativa label cannabis
Changing the way we approach labelling cannabis

It might seem easy to point a finger at cannabis growers as the culprit in this discourse. But growers long-bred and cross-bred the two species of cannabis so much now as to have created hybridized and homogenous strains that are unlike what would have been known as a indica vs sativa in the past. But this doesn’t mean that growers and breeders are solely responsible for forming misrepresentative descriptions of their strains. On the contrary, growers have adopted techniques and implemented testing to precisely target consumers’ preferences.

Traditional labeling practices may have worked in the past, but today the technology is catching up to the complexities of cannabis science, and new strains are continually being developed and released to the market.

Much like the ‘U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “nutritional facts panel,” cannabis labeling needs to come up with a comprehensive formula that can provide an accurate of what it is and what experiences can be expected from each product. This is especially true as consumer tastes become more refined and medical applications become more widely available. Thanks to advances in genetic, chemical testing, and molecular tagging, this is a very achievable goal.

The ideal label might include a list of known cannabinoids, dominant terpenes, the origin of cultivation, the curing method used, and anticipated experience effects.

Smell and taste are valid indicators of consumer preference, but they are now too simplistic a method to rely on in a world where cannabis products are more varied than apple varieties.