How could anyone hate cilantro? Mexican food isn’t complete without it, nor are certain dishes from other parts of the world. To me, fresh cilantro tastes somewhat citrusy… kind of like parsley dressed with lemon-lime. But if I want to share fresh salsa from the garden with my dad, I have to take a portion out of the bowl before adding the cilantro. He thinks it tastes like dish soap; I think he’s missing out on the best salsa ever.
To each his own, right? But it turns out that some people hate cilantro, with good reason. It may all come down to genetics, that icky taste caused by some curious DNA. Specifically, a taste allele, one that is most prominent in people of European descent. This study, published in Flavour Journal (2012), also found that women are more likely to find it soapy-tasting than men.
The study involved 14,000 people from around the world, and while it found people from all cultures who don’t like cilantro, the dislike among Europeans was significant. It also discovered that it’s not just a soapy taste that makes some people despise this herb. In fact, only four to 14 percent of the population share that oddity.
The design of our taste buds comes into play here, with some of us being more bitter-flavor sensitive than others. For example, some people hate cilantro, and so many others detest greens, especially those rich in antioxidants. Super veggies, like broccoli, kale, spinach, and Brussel sprouts taste great to some but just plain awful to others.
It seems the average person — the one who loves broccoli and spinach — has fewer bitter taste receptors on their tongue than “supertasters” do. In fact, supertasters prefer bland foods because their taste buds are highly sensitive to all flavors. Meanwhile, the average taster enjoys richly herbed or spiced foods, loves chilis, and rarely hates cilantro.
So, in a way, you can blame your ancestors for how you react to a range of foods. Of course, the culture you grow up in also influences your culinary likes and dislikes too. This conditioning is actually thought to begin in the womb. That’s right; if your mother belongs to the “hate cilantro” club, she may have made you a member too. Often those who don’t like certain cuisines have parents who won’t eat it either.
For others, the aversion comes from the pungent smell, and it’s true that aroma does greatly influence flavor. Just like animals, our noses act as a sort of food safety guide and detect possible toxins by smell. Your nose tells you if something is spoiled, which is why we all smell the contents of containers found hiding in the fridge. No one wants to eat anything that smells bad; at least not unless they’re conditioned by traditions. The fermented fish that only Nordic cultures adore comes to mind. Most people can’t stand the smell and therefore would never eat it.
It’s also worth noting that if it isn’t genetic, cilantro’s freshness could very well be part of the problem. The flavor rapidly deteriorates from the moment it’s cut from the plant. When dried, the herb is basically food coloring rather than a taste sensation.
So don’t feel alone if you hate cilantro… or parsley, or spinach, or any other food. There are so many other people who feel the same way. Most of us never consider the reason why some people like something we don’t, or vice versa. But it’s all good because variety is the spice of life. We’d all be bored if everyone were exactly the same. Still, it would help to have more universal tastes in food. Imagine how much easier feeding the family or having a dinner party would be!
Curious to know if you’re a “supertaster”? Test yourself at home.