Cilantro is the epitome of a love-hate food. Many people love it, and always have a fresh container of it in their fridge to sprinkle over dishes like tacos, curries, and bowls of fragrant pho. Other people despise the taste and will pick it out of any dish that they happen to encounter with it included. This dislike stems from their perception of cilantro’s soapy taste. So, why does cilantro taste like soap to some people, but others love it?
Today, we’ll explore the genetic cause of many people’s aversion to the taste of cilantro, and show you how you can overcome your current dislike through smart cooking tricks and interesting preparation methods.
The Genetic Influences Behind Cilantro’s Soapy Taste
For a long time, people have blamed themselves for their limited palate, or simply didn’t understand why some people could love cilantro so much. Thanks to a massive genetic survey that was released in 2012, we now have a bit more information on the genetic basis behind why some people perceive the taste of cilantro as soapy.
After surveying more than 25,000 individuals and studying their genetic profiles, researchers were able isolate a single genetic variant, known as OR6A2, which is sensitive to the chemical known as aldehyde which is responsible for cilantro’s distinctive flavor profile.
Having one or more copies of this variant was linked to individuals in the study being less likely to enjoy the taste of cilantro.
Interestingly, individuals from certain areas of the world like Latin America and India were less likely to have multiple copies of this genetic variant. These areas of the world are notable for their reliance on cilantro in their regional cuisine.
In contrast, almost 50% of Europeans had multiple copies of the OR6A2 variant. Of that number, 15% of survey participants from that demographic reported disliking the taste of cilantro.
A different study on twins also published in 2012 identified three separate genes that could play a role in how we perceive the taste of cilantro. These three genes are associated with the detection of pungent compounds and bitter foods.
Acclimating Yourself to Cilantro’s Taste
While our genetics play an important role in determining our perception of the taste of certain foods like cilantro, they’re just one piece of the puzzle.
There are many people with the OR6A2 genetic variant who find the taste of cilantro quite pleasant. Having this genetic variant makes you more likely to find the taste of cilantro soapy, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t train yourself to enjoy it.
Here are some tips on how to explore cilantro in a new way:
1. Try cooking with cilantro
For most people, cilantro is at its most pungent and soapy when it’s raw and freshly chopped. To help yourself get acclimated to the taste, try cooking with cilantro. It adds quite a different flavor when it’s cooked.
2. Make cilantro pesto
Making cilantro into pesto with a mortar and pestle is a great way to explore a new side of cilantro’s flavor. Famous food writer Harold McGee points out that “crushing the leaves will give [cilantro’s] leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma.” This turns the sharp taste of cilantro into something much more muted.
3. Start small
You don’t have to start adding fistfuls of cilantro to your meals overnight. Instead, start small. Add a few leaves to part of your meal, then gradually start increasing your serving size once you start to enjoy the taste. One study found that eating something at least 8 or 9 times can help you like it more.
Want to learn more about how our genetics affects the foods that we eat and love? Explore more nutrigenomic resources on genetics, healthy eating, and more on the GenoPalate blog.
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