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Do you love or hate Cilantro?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post, originally published on April 25, 2009, although relatively short (for me, at least) and relatively devoid of new information, was a huge hit. It got lots of traffic, many comments, many incoming links, and the discussion spread around online social networks and lasted for quite a while. All it shows, really, is how passionate people are about their food….

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If you think that political or religious debates can get nasty, you haven’t seen anything until you go online and see how much hate exists between people who love cilantro and those who hate cilantro. What horrible words they use to describe each other!!!!

Last weekend, I asked why is this and searched Twitter and FriendFeed for discussions, as well Wikipedia and Google Scholar for information about it.

First – cilantro is the US name for the plant that is called coriander in the rest of the world. In the USA, only the seed is called coriander, and the rest of the plant is cilantro.

Second – there are definitely two populations of people: one (larger) group thinks that it is the best taste ever, while the other group thinks it is awful. The latter group is not simply incapable of tasting cilantro – they can taste it in minuscule quantities hidden in food and describe it as “dirty dish-soap water taste”. People who cannot stand cilantro leaf are perfectly OK with eating the coriander seed.

So, it is something in the leaf that makes the difference.

Third – anecdotal information from scouring the Web suggests (“me and my Dad hate it…”) that the type of response to cilantro is inherited. It is also not experiental (those who hate it, hated it when they were kids, those who love it sometimes first tried it when they were already old and loved it at first try, and the response does not change with age, amount, kind of food preparation, etc).

Fourth – there is no scientific literature that I could find on the genetics of this. Is the difference at the level of the gustatory (or olfactory) receptors, or at higher-level processing centers in the brain?

Fifth – there is one paper that shows that the type of response to cilantro taste has nothing to do with the individual being a supertaster or not.

Sixth – There are a few older papers that identified chemical compounds in the leaves of cilantro, and a few about the allergy to cilantro, but no final identification of the compound that makes the difference in taste to the two groups.

So, does anyone else know more about this? Let us know in the comments.

In the meantime, be nice to people who are not your cilantro-type – they cannot help it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons



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Comments 25 Comments

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  1. 1. Larry Ayers 1:09 pm 08/9/2011

    A person’s feelings about cilantro are affected to a cetain degree by the sort of food that person likes to eat. Many traditional Mexican dishes call out for cilantro; the unique taste melds well with the flavors of chile peppers and tomatoes and many dishes just aren’t the same without the herb.

    I first tasted cilantro when I was in my thirties and it took me a while to develop a taste for it; once I started growing it I was hooked. I have no idea if I inherited a liking for it, as my Swedish/ Scottish parents and grandparents were unlikely to have ever been exposed to it or even have heard of it.

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  2. 2. Symbiartic.km 2:33 pm 08/9/2011

    I come from a family of cilantro-ignoramuses (I’d never even heard of it until college) and for years was a devout hater myself. I would meticulously pick every fleck of it out of a meal before taking the first bite. But I married into a family of cilantro-lovers and was converted on a family trip in Mexico. What does the literature say about converts!? We do exist. I can still smell the offending “je ne sais” but the taste doesn’t bother me anymore.

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  3. 3. brynnscott 4:25 pm 08/9/2011

    Has anyone heard of dramatic visceral responses such as this to certain vegetables when cooked and only when cooked? I eat raw cauliflower and broccoli frequently – even daily, but the smell (and taste–on those few times I have tried to get past the smell), literally causes my gag reflex to, well, gag. I have a similar reaction to the smell of ground beef that has been cooked well done and my daughter and sister have both reported similar reactions to those as well. Just wondering.

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  4. 4. happykat 4:29 pm 08/9/2011

    I consider myself to have a pretty good sense of taste and smell but nothing astoundingly so. I love cilantro and think a salsa without it isn’t worth eating.

    But I have a problem with another odor that comes from two different sources. I can smell bamboo that is going bad before the dish even hits my table. It is overpoweringly obnoxious to me.

    One day my wife was given a potted paperwhite narcissus. I had to have her remove it from the house. There was nowhere in the house i could escape the smell of it and it was so bad it was physically uncomfortable.

    The curious thing is that the smell of the bad bamboo and the narcissus was identical. The only thing I could think of to explain it was that both of them gave off a specific chemical smell that I was overly sensitive to.

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  5. 5. mgrant 5:31 pm 08/9/2011

    I can’t stand the stuff myself. Yes, “Dirty dish-water soap” is pretty close to how I would describe the taste.

    I’m curious, is that the same flavor that a cilantro lover tastes? If not, maybe there’s a gene that codes for this taste sensation that I have/don’t have.

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  6. 6. SaltonCity Hobo 6:33 pm 08/9/2011

    My only aversion or attraction regarding cilantro (as well as most other flavorings, spices, herbs, garnishes, non-nutritional and nutritional supplements etc.) relates primarily to price/performance ratios. As such, I can take or ‘leaf’ cilantro; would never pay anything to ‘enjoy’ its cheeky nuances; would be happy to add it to any recipe if I thought I could then charge a marginally higher price (but feel confident that if I substituted celery leaf, few would know the difference); and would eat it in large quantities if someone paid me adequately to do so.

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  7. 7. kleink 7:20 pm 08/9/2011

    Like most, I came to Cilantro in my 30s in the context of Mexican food. It was a peculuar taste at first but it grew on me until i just love it now. I grow it in my garden from early spring until after frost. All of my immediate family love it as well.

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  8. 8. rbullockv8 7:26 pm 08/9/2011

    I ate Mexican food all my life and never tasted cilantro until the 1990s when on a business trip to Phoenix. I couldn’t figure out what was ruining the taste of a Mexican salad I’d ordered. Couldn’t finish it. Someone told me it was cilantro.

    Then it began showing up in everything from jar salsa to cilantro-lime salad dressing at El Torito. I always ask for it to be removed, but some dishes are unsalvageable. Waitresses don’t look at me funny like they used to (so I guess there are a lot of us haters out there), and several servers have confessed they hate it too.

    It tastes strongly metalic to me, almost like an electric shock or tinfoil on the teeth, and others have confirmed this when I mentioned it to them (the cilantro haters, of course). My wife and daughter love it; one of my best friends adores it–he sent me this link and flaunts cilantro whenever he can.

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  9. 9. Connie Sagan 7:50 pm 08/9/2011

    I don’t think the love or hate for cilantro has any physiological roots. I’m Mexican, and had never heard of anybody who disliked the flavor of cilantro before I read this article. My guess is that if you are not used to Mexican cuisine, then the flavor will be exotic to you and you probably will hate it. Especially if you try it decontextualized. That is, treat it as an herb or spice that goes along with certain ingredients. For example, lima juice or green chiles, for a delicious green salsa. Or, along with raw white onion, as the perfect top for tacos al pastor.
    If you are a neophyte in the realms of Mexican cuisine, don’t even think that Taco Bell or similar fast food labels will give you even a hint to real Mexican cuisine. That would be the worst initial step into such a fine herb as cilantro.

    By the way, the US isn’t the only country where cilantro receives its name. Obviously, it is an Spanish name and comes from Mexico, where it is ubiquitous in almost every home and eating table.

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  10. 10. Lou Jost 9:17 pm 08/9/2011

    I feel certain it is genetic, but that the gene is not uniformly distributed among ethnic groups. Here is an article quoting a study showing it is genetic:
    http://www.wtvq.com/health/599-soapy-cilantro-study
    I think the commenters above who say they grew to like cilantro are not real cilantro-haters (they do not mention the soap taste). I agree that it is very rare to meet native Mexicans or other Central or South Americans who dislike cilantro. I live in Ecuador and have never met someone who hates it.

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  11. 11. annb 2:16 am 08/10/2011

    I’m with author Zivkovic: I’d really like to know if it’s a genetic variation to taste cilantro leaves as a musty, nasty taste. There are genetic variations in which some people can taste a specific taste that others don’t detect at all, so it would not be too unusual a situation. I first tasted cilantro as an adult, and to me it’s awful, but specifically it tastes bad exactly as described, a musty taste. I assume it tastes delicious to most people, since it’s a favored ingredient in many cuisines, such as Thai and Mexican, both of which I like very much otherwise. Once I grabbed, by mistake, a bunch of cilantro leaves which had gotten mixed in with the parsley in the store. I made a salad which I brought to a pot-luck lunch. I tasted it just before serving, and actually thought the salad had spoiled! Everyone else tasted it and said it was great, and only later did I discover my mistake. That’s a good blind taste test, I think. And yes, I can detect tiny bits even in a soup. Has anyone checked to see if cilantro-handicapped people correlate to any ethnic group? Maybe we cilantro-phobes are just a random unlucky bunch with cranky taste buds.

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  12. 12. dlhfrmboi 4:22 am 08/10/2011

    It is possible that the “haters” have the ability to detect some ingredient in Cilantro, while the “lovers” either (a) cannot taste it due to a genetic factor or (b) have had their ability to taste it permanently destroyed by exposure of their taste-buds to the “hot” ingredients in Mexican and other warm-climate cuisines. The latter would explain the phenomenon of “converts” who acquire a liking for it after eating it in Mexican cooking, as well as the reported rarity of “haters” in Mexico.

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  13. 13. MarlysePi 4:53 am 08/10/2011

    When first exposed to cilantro in Mexico, I hated it not for the taste (never had the ” musty” experience) but for the smell, which reminded me of squashed insect, specifically the wood bug. As it was ubiquitous in Mexican food, I had to get used to it, and now I love it!

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  14. 14. Tinglev 8:51 am 08/10/2011

    MarlysePi – I hate cilantro – both the smell and the taste which I have often told my husband (who likes it) that it smells like a squashed ant. He thinks I’m crazy, but I think you just validated it for me. Never having tasted a squashed ant, I’m not sure if it tastes like one though. I can absolutley taste even minute quantities in dishes. What’s odd, is that while I also hate lima beans, I don’t have the intense aversion to them like I do cilantro. It has some odd chemical reaction with my tastebuds that other foods I don’t like, don’t have. As a vegetarian, it’s a little annoying that it shows up not only in Mexican cusine, but a lot of Indian as well. The Indian’s are usually willing to remove it from the dishes I order though – not so much with the Mexican fare – so I make my own.

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  15. 15. jaythakar 10:52 am 08/10/2011

    I come from India where cilantro (known as KOTHMIR) is used almost by every one. I have never come across any Indian who did not like cilantro. Besides using in soups, vegetables, dal or lentils etc. we also make chutney from it and it is a favorite with everybody.

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  16. 16. Symbiartic.km 12:17 pm 08/10/2011

    Lou Jost, I’m a former cilantro-hater and I definitely tasted the sharp, metallic quality that people describe as soapy and horrible. But I did notice a change in the acuity of my sense of smell around the same time as cilantro became more palatable to me. I still smell the sharp, metallic quality if I chop or pick cilantro but the taste no longer irks me. I wonder if it was the change to my smell has something to do with it.

    Incidentally, Jeffrey Steingarten has a hilarious chapter in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, on being a cilantro hater. Very, very funny.

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  17. 17. Grumpyoleman 5:36 pm 08/10/2011

    My daughter in law does not like peanut butter. Her 3 kids do not like peanut butter although all 3 like peanuts. Imagine having grandkids that do not like peanut butter. I think her dislike is the cause of their dislike. Same with cilantro. On the other hand, I like everything but liver. Taste is ok, I love liver sausage. It’s the texture that I can’t handle. Feels like something extremely dead.

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  18. 18. Postman1 7:39 pm 08/10/2011

    From Wikipedia- “Coriander is common in Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Mexican, Texan, Latin American, Chinese, African, Southeast Asian and Scandinavian cuisine.”
    I love it and have run into it in several countries’ dishes.
    Grumpyoleman- I like goose liver pate and chicken liver wrapped in bacon, but agree with you, “extremely dead”!

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  19. 19. tucanofulano 11:12 pm 08/10/2011

    I first encountered Cilantro in S.W. Asia; I thought I was being poisoned.
    Now, in SoCal, the illegals in the kitchen throw it into just about everything, which of course ruins the dish being served. The darned weed gives me fierce headaches on top of really bad breath, so I avoid it when I can or toss out any dish served having it.

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  20. 20. dlhfrmboi 3:48 am 08/11/2011

    Here’s a possible hypothesis: Those who hate cilantro taste some chemical component that those who love it do not. The cilantro-lovers don’t taste this component for one of two reasons: (A) They lack the ability from birth for genetic reasons. (B) They were born with the ability to taste it, but this ability was destroyed by repeated contact of their taste-buds with the capsaicinoids that are prevalent in Mexican and other hot-climate cuisines. Reason (B) would explain the phenomenon of “converts” to cilantro-loving such as Symbiartic.km above, as well as the rarity of cilantro-hating people in places where it is widely used (which might also be due to (A)).

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  21. 21. dlhfrmboi 4:27 pm 08/11/2011

    Here is a possible hypothesis: The aversion to cilantro of the “haters” is due to the presence of a compound that the “lovers” are unable to taste. Inability to taste it in any given person is due to one of two causes: (A) heredity. (B) loss of the capability due to damage to the taste buds, caused by repeated exposure to the capsaicinoids which are frequently encountered in Mexican and other hot-climate cuisines. Cause (B) could explain the phenomenon of “converts”, and both causes could contribute to the (reported) rarity of “haters” in equatorial climes.

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  22. 22. david winter 7:59 pm 08/11/2011

    (a) Love love love Coriander leaf (chili + lime + coriander is surely the greatest combination of flavours known to man)
    (b) I’ve got an idea for a new excercise for the 2nd year quantative genetics lab down here :)

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  23. 23. nola2chi 6:44 pm 08/13/2011

    My first attempt at having potted/home grown herbs consisted of a bunch of little peat pots with seeds sewn, placed on a small heating pad.

    I cleared the entire pantry, scrubbed the kitchen trash can with bleach, absolutely knew there was a dead something there.

    It was the cilantro sprouts. If I have parsley on my list and someone has ruffled the cilantro, I can’t go anywhere near it, and it’s often challenging to try to avoid being downwind.

    Just can’t explain how offensive it is to me. And no, I’m not good for ‘developing a taste’ for it. That’s been tried. However, it could be considered medicinal if there was a need to purge.

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  24. 24. Ubi Dubium 10:17 am 08/16/2011

    Cilantro hater here. Not just hate. Loathe. Since I heard so many people rave about it, I even tried growing it at home to see if I would like homegrown any better. It was worse than what was at the supermarket, stronger, like concentrated soap. I don’t understand how anyone would deliberately dose their food with Tide, so I think I’m tasting some chemical that they don’t taste.

    I’d love to see some research on whether dislike of cilantro correlates strongly with dislike of any other particular foods.

    And to Connie Sagan, and your suggestion of combining it with raw onion. As a supertaster, I would find that doubly unpalatable. It would be like trying to improve the flavor of battery acid by adding soap. No thanks.

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  25. 25. Joy of Blending 2:23 am 11/30/2012

    23andMe did a study to see if they could find a genetic link, and they say they’ve found one. Their paper is awaiting peer review, but they’ve put up a blog post and a pre-print:
    http://blog.23andme.com/23andme-research/cilantro-love-hate-genetic-trait/

    Link to this

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