Can’t Stand Cilantro? Your Genes Might Be to Blame

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To some, it tastes like fresh, lemony goodness.

To others, it tastes like dish detergent.

Cilantro, also known as coriander, is a green leafy herb native to Iran. From Indian chutneys to Chinese salads, from Middle Eastern marinades to Mexican sauces, cilantro is beloved in cuisines all over the world… except among a certain slice of the population that can’t stand the stuff.

They say there’s no accounting for taste, but when it comes to this most controversial of herbs, the debate may be buried far deeper than our taste buds. Your love or hatred for cilantro may be embedded in your DNA.

Mmm, aldehyde

Though we tend to associate our perception of flavor with taste buds, there are other sensory receptors involved — most importantly, our sense of smell. If you’ve ever had a stuffy nose, you already know this. Food tastes much blander to us when we can’t smell it.

This works the other way, too: a certain strong scent may influence whether we enjoy the food we’re tasting.

And here’s where genetics come into play. In a 2012 study published in the journal Flavour, Eriksson et al identified a genetic variant located in a cluster of olfactory-receptor genes that influence how we perceive the “soapy” smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, is responsible for a receptor that is sensitive to a chemical called aldehyde — a chemical also found in cilantro. People who have this genetic variant are particularly sensitive to the smell of aldehyde. So when they are served cilantro, their senses are overwhelmed by the “soapy” components of the herb.

How much of it is genes, though?

Despite this find, Eriksson et al write that the heritability of cilantro soapy-scent detection is low: less than 10%. “It is possible that… there is not a strong genetic component to cilantro preference,” they write.

Food preferences in general can be influenced by many factors, and many of them are environmental. Strong flavors and spices that are popular in one culture may be revolting to people from a different culture, and that could be largely a function of what people are used to and what foods are available in their native regions. Fetuses even develop food preferences in utero based on their mothers’ diets!

Cilantro in different cultures

A study by Mauer & El-Sohemy published in the journal Flavour in 2012 examined the phenomenon of cilantro aversion in various ethnocultural groups. They found that the prevalence of disliking cilantro ranged from 3% in some groups to 21% in other groups. 21% of East Asians, 17% of Caucasians, 14% of people of African descent, 7% of South Asian, 4% of Hispanics, and 3% of Middle Easterners were found to dislike cilantro.

It’s interesting to note that in cultures where cilantro is used very liberally — such as Latin American and Middle Eastern cuisines — the prevalence of cilantro aversion is quite low. It could very well be that the genetic component of cilantro preference comes into play here.

Can cilantro-haters be converted?

If the very concept of cilantro nauseates you, at least you’re in good company. Julia Child famously said that she never ordered dishes with it, and that if she saw it in her food, she would pick it out and throw it on the floor!

Research shows, however, that it may be possible for people who hate cilantro to overcome their aversion. A 2010 study by Quynh et al, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggested that crushing cilantro speeds up the process of breaking down aldehyde, the chemical that makes cilantro-haters gag. This might mean that crushing the herb could make it more palatable to them. New York Times food writer Harold McGee suggested that mild pestos combining the crushed herbed with nuts, olive oil, garlic, and a sharp cheese may be a good place to start.

In any case, it’s not clear whether your genes are to blame. But there are many other secrets to unlock in your DNA! Take a MyHeritage DNA test and start your journey of discovery.

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  • Denise


    August 31, 2020

    I can’t eat cilantro. Its smell gives me an instant bad migraine. I can’t detect a lemony taste or even a dish soap taste. It just tastes awful.

  • Keith Wolfe


    September 13, 2020

    Praises to Julia Child for throwing this stuff on the floor. I doubt the Devil himself would eat it.

    Thanks for this enlightening article. I am pleased to know that I may not be the only one avoiding a Mexican restaurant for fear of encountering this diabolical scourge on humanity. I would even be in trouble if cilantro prevented the virus.