Polarizing debates tend to be more common in politics rather than in the kitchen, but cilantro (also known as coriander) is one of these exceptions. There are people that absolutely can’t stand the herb and probably think the people that love it are not exactly sane.
As with many things, perceptions might seem universal but in reality, they are very personal. But it looks like some cilantro haters might actually have a genetic variation that makes the herb smell like soap. And who wants to eat a soapy taco?
A new video by the American Chemical Society’s Reactions has tackled this intriguing “controversy”, explaining the science behind this culinary schism. A genetic variation on a gene in Chromosome 11, known as OR6A2 and is linked to our sense of smell, is considered the culprit for at least some of the cilantro haters. The genetic change might be responsible for how we perceive molecules known as aldehydes, the main odor-causing compounds of cilantro.
There are four principal molecules that produce its distinct aroma, two of them are more earthy and two of them, known as E-2-Alkenals, are more soapy. Researchers have suggested that people with the genetic variation are experiencing those molecules in a different way to the wider population. But, as the video clearly explains, the exact mechanism behind the soapy smell and taste is still not clear.
The suggestion of a genetic reason behind the cilantro-hate has been around for a while, but the first strong evidence was seen in a large genetic survey composed by 23andMe on almost 30,000 people from a European background, broken in two groups. To make sure the question wasn’t leading the researchers phrased their question slightly differently to the two groups; they asked one if cilantro tasted soapy, and the other was asked simply if they liked the herb. In both cases, the most likely candidate for the dislike seemed to reside on the gene OR6A2.
There are also some other interesting tidbits in the study. For example, the genetic variation showed a low heritability, so if you hate it, your kids might be able to stand the herb better.
According to a different study, the hate for the herb is not equally spread across the globe. The regions of the world that use more cilantro in their dishes – South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East – tend to have a smaller percentage (between 4 and 7 percent) of people that hate the herb compared to regions that use it less often, which can go beyond 20 percent.