It’s a word that sounds like the dread for High-School chemistry. Having read nothing more than the title of this entry, most of us can already feel our brains fogging up and finding anything else to consider, like vegan hot wings or if there are colors we’ll never even know about. Have you arrived there, mentally? On a chair that six other people already used today? Sitting in a room with 25 other kids, all of you growing the suspicion that the person running this classroom is even more bored of you than you are of them? Until you know you what it is (and why it’s important to you) “decarboxylation” sounds awful and pointless. It isn’t, and we’re going to show you why.
First off, so the uncurious can get on with their day; You’ve purposely used decarboxylation in your life, probably countless times. Whenever you’ve heated an herb in order to make some useful chemicals be present where they weren’t before, you’ve decarboxylated them. That’s not the definition, and it’s barely enough knowledge to say you’ve learned something, but there it is. Practical, understandable, true, and probably not enough information.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s look a little deeper let’s talk about plants and how they do what they do. You probably already kind of know that plants absorb a lot of carbon dioxide over the course of the day. You learn early on about it’s being part of the great big life cycle that we’re all part of. Plants take in CO2 and give back oxygen, animals use that oxygen and make CO2 out of it. Planet Earth’s biggest and top billed win-win situation. If you think about that for just a second, you should realize that the plant is not exactly making something that isn’t already there, it’s really just taking the carbon out of the carbon dioxide, and the oxygen is what’s left over. Part of what it’s doing with all that carbon is making carboxylic acid, and that is what we’re altering when we decarboxylate.
So, plants put it into themselves while building the material we use, and we remove it from them before we can process the stuff. Does that seem weird? Like a complication to the procedure we got all worked out with the oxygen and the CO2 exchange? Shouldn’t the plant just gives us the chemical we want without tying us in a whole bunch of knots made of organic chemistry? Maybe it should, but it can’t. You see the plant is up against the forces of slow creeping chaos, like rust on a car, that if allowed to, will turn all that hard photosynthesizing and carbon removal into dust. So it builds stability into its structure with a layer of carboxylic acid protecting anything the plant might need later. It’s a good thing that when the plant makes something, that thing doesn’t just oxidize and blow away, but it also means that we’re going to make some changes before we can use what the plant makes for own purposes.
Which brings us to the decarb portion of the story. Feels like a lot of set up to get to thing that you surely came here seeking, I know. You still want to know what’s up with the dry herbs from which we extract our useful essential oils, calming lipids, and helpful medicine. We’ll get there, I promise. You just have eat a little bit more meat before you get to the pudding.
The thing is, you’re already biologically capable taking on a tremendous variety of carboxylates and turning them into the various chemicals that you use during the course of being a living animal. You would not have made it this far if you weren’t. I don’t mean this far in the blog post, I mean this far in life. Not just your life, but as a lifeform. Bacteria are capable of decarboxylation, so not to be able to would be a huge problem for you. For example, you take in an amino acid called 5-HTP when you eat, then chemically you make just a slight alteration and remove that carboxylic acid, you get serotonin. Serotonin is a vital and much sought-after chemical in your brain responsible for happiness and getting out of bed in the morning.
That brings us to the end of Part 1. The takeaway should be that plants carboxylate the compounds they make for the sake of stability, we decarboxylate to use those compounds. Part 2 will be all about the how and why of decarbing not with natural body chemistry, but rather intentionally with heat and with time.