Cilantro Love and Hate: Is it a Genetic Trait?

We’re blogging about the various research projects and discoveries 23andMe scientists are presenting in November at the annual American Society of Human Genetics meeting. This is the first in our series of posts. Check back for more as the meeting gets closer!

Hated, vile, foul herb; One mere leaf destroys the meal. Oh, to be tongueless! by ItReallyIsAwful at ihatecilantro.com

For some people, dining out can be a minefield for the tastebuds. As once-Blog contributor Erin wrote, “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?”

It turns out that cilantro (also known as fresh coriander) was the culprit. One of the most widely used herbs in the world, it is also one of the most divisive. Many people have no idea that this leafy green herb can cause such repulsion, much to the chagrin of those who find it foul. To Erin, cilantro tastes like soap. To others, it can taste like stinkbugs, dirt, or — if they’re feeling really dramatic – anarchy, pure evil, or the plague.

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%
Coincidence? No! Cilantro enters Europe. Along with Black Death. by Popmusicguy at ihatecilantro.com

Why do some people love cilantro, while others hate it with every fiber of their being? The environment or culture in which you grew up can matter – one study found that 14-21 percent of people of East Asian, African, and Caucasian ancestry disliked cilantro while only 3-7 percent of those who identified as South Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern disliked it.

But clearly environment isn’t everything. Could genetic differences explain some of this love-hate trait? We put the cilantro taste question to about 50,000 23andMe customers, asking whether they liked the taste of cilantro and whether they thought cilantro had a soapy taste. When we compared the DNA of the cilantro haters to the DNA of cilantro lovers, we found a SNP (or genetic variation) called to be associated with the trait in a subset of about 25,000 people with European ancestry. (About 13 percent of 23andMe customers with European ancestry answered that cilantro tastes soapy, and 26 percent dislike it.)

People with the less common version of had lower odds of perceiving a soapy taste and of disliking the herb. This SNP is not directly tested by 23andMe’s DNA chip (it was inferred from nearby SNPs), so 23andMe customers can instead look at their results for , which is highly correlated with in people of European descent. It shouldn’t be surprising that this SNP is located near eight genes that code for olfactory receptors, biological sensors that detect chemicals in the air and in food.

Humans have hundreds of these 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.

Soak your dirty feet In lemon water and drink. Tastes like cilantro. by Sheri2names at ihatecilantro.com

Cilantro’s aromatic qualities primarily depend on a group of compounds known as aldehydes. 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 SNP we identified 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), it just means that in general, genetics isn’t a huge part of why our tastes for cilantro differ. One thing’s for sure – if you hate cilantro, you REALLY hate cilantro! Check out some of the passionate poetry people have written (some highlighted throughout this post) at ihatecilantro.com.

Read more about our cilantro discovery at: