Cilantro Love and Hate: Is it a Genetic Trait?

There’s a day for almost everything, so, of course, there’s an international “I Hate Coriander Day.”

Coriander, also known as cilantro, is one of the most commonly used herbs in the world, but a preference for this little leafy green is just one more thing that divides people.

For some of us, why anyone would feel such a passionate loathing for an ingredient that brings a little distinctive tang to their guacamole is baffling. While others cringe in disgust at the thought of tasting anything with what they think of as a “devil herb.”

Cilantro Tastes Like Soap

As one former 23andMe blogger said in an old ode to cilantro hatred:

“For years I believed that every Mexican restaurant my family took me to had some kind of problem with their dishwashing machine. Why else would the food always taste like soap?”

Many people have no idea that this leafy green herb can cause such repulsion, much to the chagrin of those who find it foul. For some, cilantro tastes like soap. To others, it can taste like stink bugs, dirt, or — if they’re feeling really dramatic – anarchy, pure evil, or the plague.

Cilantro Taste Aversion

Like with anything that divides people, it’s helpful to understand where the other side is coming from. And we at 23andMe are here to help with a little science. 

Several years back, a team of 23andMe scientists found that there’s a “genetic component to cilantro taste perception.” The findings suggested that genetic variants in the olfactory receptors may be what contributes to some people’s distaste for cilantro.

23andMe also offers customers a Cilantro Taste Aversion Trait Report that looks at two genetic variants associated with a dislike for cilantro and can tell you if you have slightly higher or lower odds of disliking the herb.

While genetics plays a role, culture and environment do, too. Some of that may explain the differences between people of different ancestries. In the 23andMe study, we found that 14-21 percent of people of East Asian, African, and Caucasian ancestry disliked cilantro while only 3-to-7 percent of those who identified as South Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern disliked it.

But clearly, your environment or your cultural cuisine isn’t everything. Genetics also plays a role in this love-hate relationship.

Cilantro & Genetics

<

Cilantro taste in 23andMe customers
Cilantro soapy-taste by ancestry

Ashkenazi Jewish 14.1%
Southern European 13.4%
Northern European 12.8%
African-American 9.2%
Latino 8.7%
East Asian 8.4%
South Asian 3.9%

Sex differences in cilantro taste perception

Female vs. Male
Tastes soapy 57% vs. 43%
Doesn’t taste soapy 49% vs. 51%

Humans have hundreds of receptors, which send signals to our brains to produce what we recognize as aromas and flavors.

But exactly how this works is complex and differs from person to person. The same chemical can be found in both appealing and unappealing places — cheese and body odor, for example. Conversely, the same ingredient — such as cilantro — can contain both pleasant and unpleasant chemicals. Whether stinky cheese and cilantro are delicious or disgusting depends on your particular perception of many different chemicals.

The two genetic variants used in 23andMe’s Cilantro Taste Aversion trait report are both located in a cluster of olfactory receptor genes. These are biological sensors that detect chemicals in the air and in food. These receptor genes are also linked to the ability to detect what are called aldehydes, chemical compounds that are found in soap and thought to be a major component of cilantro aroma.

Supertasters

One type of aldehyde has been described as being “fruity” and “green” and another type as being “soapy” and “pungent”.

One of the eight genes near the variants 23andMe uses in its report codes for a receptor called OR6A2, which is known to detect aldehydes such as those found in cilantro. Although this finding provides evidence that genetic variation in olfactory receptors is involved in cilantro taste perception, common genetic variants explain only a very small part of the difference — a half percent — between 23andMe customers for this trait.

This doesn’t mean that genetics can’t play a large role for a particular person. Indeed, some people are “supertasters,” or may have specific genetic variations that cause them to detect or not detect certain smells and flavors. One thing’s for sure – if you hate cilantro, you REALLY hate cilantro!

23andMe customers can check out their Cilantro Taste Aversion trait report here. Not yet a customer? Find out more here.