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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Cilantro Gene Myth (Part I)



Look, if I could consult Alex Brands, General Biology Post-doc/Fellow at Lehigh University, on everything I would, but I can't. Luckily, however, the man has plainly laid it out on the table when it comes to the cilantro hate gene myth. So, he doesn't call it a myth, as such, but he does say that the gene's existence has NOT been proven:

A google groups search confirms that you are not alone, as there are plenty of
testimonials from people to whom cilantro tastes like soap. There is no mention of
this in the Genetics textbooks I checked, and I did a PubMed search of the primary
research literature, but that came up empty. The short answer is: no one knows (if
they do, they haven’t told anyone)

So, Mr. Brands does go on to say the soap gene thing would be a reasonable hypothesis, but that given the current state of science funding in this country it will probably never be proven. So, while it might seem like the post-doc is favoring the idea that there is such a gene, in the end he's unable to find any conclusive evidence that there actually is one. So, what he calls a reasonable hypothesis, I'll call pure conjecture.

Or worse. It seems to me that people want to think there is such a gene. That they're born with a condition that prohibits them from enjoying something, that being born with such a condition makes it not their fault and ok somehow. But I wonder, what's so wrong about not liking everything? I mean, hating cilantro so much makes everything else taste so much better; it's all about juxtaposition. So, really, not liking just one thing (albeit a thing that is f#$&ing everywhere) is a relatively small price to pay for being able to then like everything else more. I HATE cilantro, but I LOVE oysters.

22 comments:

mg said...

It's my understanding that the most commonly eaten parts of the cilantro plant are the leaves and the seeds (dried, I presume). This seems to beg the question of whether the aforementioned mythical gene, if it exists, might impact one's taste of the seeds as well as the leaves. Put that in your cilantro pipe and smoke it (err, if that doesn't also taste bad to you).

Erin Hollingsworth said...

Indeed, a very good question mg. As with most cilantro haters I know, the coriander seed does not create the kind of visceral reaction of hate the leaves do and I've read (and it's been my experience) that the seed and leaf have nothing whatsoever to do with each other in flavor. Also, cilantro belongs to the family apiaceae which includes parsley, cumin, carrot, dill and fennel, all of which I like (although cumin overkill is a culinary ill all-to-common) and understand many other cilantro haters also don't mind or even really like. So, what we'd have on our hands here is not only a gene that distinguishes cilantro from its close family members, but also one that distinguishes between its seed and leaf form. So, as unlikely as it is that this gene does exist, I would have to think its presence in a person would point to 1 or 2 things: 1) it's indicative of a higher level of evolution others have not experienced -- cilantro lovers will outlive cilantro itself or 2) it's a residual trait that others have lost that at one point warned against the poisonous nature of cilantro, but cilantro lovers insisted on eating it long enough, naturally killing of many of their kind, that we [humans] developed an immunity to it. Some of us are not so immune, aware of not the exact harm, other than one of taste, to our species, but remaining quite sure that there must be one we have as yet to understand.

To return to your question, the seed/leaf distinction certainly deserves more attention and I'll see to it that it gets it.

mg said...

I'm glad to see that proper attention is, at long last, being paid to the issue of the cilantro seed by the moderator. Why do we seem intent on bastardizing this part of the plant? I think that all of us who care deeply about cilantro (and I just happen to enjoy it in nearly all forms) need to start making distinctions between the leaves and seeds.

Having said that, you make a good point when you write that, if the so-called cilantro gene exists, "...it's indicative of a higher level of evolution others have not experienced". Yes, indeed. I suspect that may be the case, despite the understandable skepticism. Call it a hunch.

JLW said...

Hello,

I believe that genetics likely does play a role in this. My father cannot stand the taste of cilantro so growing up my mother never cooked with it and I never tried it. After moving away to University I noticed that some foods tasted absolutely horrible. I would describe it to people as rotting soap contamination. No one that tried the food agreed with me though. Then i tried some soup at a friends house that was loaded with the stuff and I nearly gagged. I asked what was in it and discovered the culprit. When I told my mother she laughed at me and that's when I learned my father and his brothers also had the same reaction and cilantro was unofficially banned in all of their households. I would say that this suggests a definite hereditary trait and not a learned condition or environmentally induced one.

JLW said...

Hello,

I believe that genetics likely does play a role in this. My father cannot stand the taste of cilantro so growing up my mother never cooked with it and I never tried it. After moving away to University I noticed that some foods tasted absolutely horrible. I would describe it to people as rotting soap contamination. No one that tried the food agreed with me though. Then i tried some soup at a friends house that was loaded with the stuff and I nearly gagged. I asked what was in it and discovered the culprit. When I told my mother she laughed at me and that's when I learned my father and his brothers also had the same reaction and cilantro was unofficially banned in all of their households. I would say that this suggests a definite hereditary trait and not a learned condition or environmentally induced one.

Erin Hollingsworth said...

My father doesn't like social injustice and neither do I, but I don't think that makes it a genetic trait, see what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I eat everything! So one cannot ascribe a picky palate to me. However, to me cilantro leaves taste exactly like someone poured a liberal amount of dishwashing detergent into whatever recipe uses them. It is absolutely vile. If you don't have this gene, then try to imagine your mom washing your mouth out with soap! I KNOW it's a gene, for there is no way that the general populace would be using this herb if it tasted this way to everyone. And, by the way, coriander seed does NOT taste this way to me. I have no problem with the seed at all.

albevier said...

OK, this may be pure urban legend but this is what I understand to be the case regarding genetics and the tast of cilantro.

Phenylthiocarbimine (PTC) is a chemical that some people can taste and others cannot. The ability to taste PTC is caused by a dominant allele that codes for a
receptor for the chemical. Homozygous recessive individuals (pp)cannot taste PTC so they like cilantro.

Again - this may be total hogwash but I thought I'd throw it in ring.

marnanel said...

I'm wondering whether you and I read the same post there, because as far as I could tell he said that a genetic origin was the best hypothesis he could see. That's a long, long way from its being a "myth".

Also, people who have "postdoc" in their job titles necessarily have PhDs (=="post doctorate"), so he's Dr, not Mr.

Anonymous said...

I have this taste problem with both Cilantro and Coriander. They both taste very bad both in my mouth and from smell. But the interesting thing is that this didnt ever occur to me until I was 30, and I have always been a fan of mexican foods, normally rich in cilantro. It's my beleif that this is not so much a genetic problem, but more like a developed alergy. I've heard of other alergies that can come on later in life, like phermaldahide alergies from living in a new home, due to the off gasses produced by the solvants/adhesives/materials, can make it impossible to use most soaps, cosmetics, and other products.

dr said...

People who don't have this problem
cannot understand.

I am a chef and will eat anything
but Cilantro.

It really ruins everything for me.

I love parsley and most any herb and spice and all hot peppers.

I wondered what was making certain salsas taste so bad.

Then one day, I bought a fresh batch of Cilantro and included it in a salad I made.
The salad was delicious but the Cilantro flavor over-powered everything!

Not only that. I couldn't rid the taste of it for 2 days hence.
Like a dog trying to get a bad stink off his face.

I am certain this is genetic,
not only for humans but mostly for the plants.

There is a study in JAMA
saying plants contain the most poisons of anything we eat and that these poisons destroy our cells.

I would luv to eat Cilantro
but now I'm even afraid to eat coriander seeds.

Anyhow...
There are sooo many things you can do without cilantro and coriander.

DR

dr said...

People who don't have this problem
cannot understand.

I am a chef and will eat anything
but Cilantro.

It really ruins everything for me.

I love parsley and most any herb and spice and all hot peppers.

I wondered what was making certain salsas taste so bad.

Then one day, I bought a fresh batch of Cilantro and included it in a salad I made.
The salad was delicious but the Cilantro flavor over-powered everything!

Not only that. I couldn't rid the taste of it for 2 days hence.
Like a dog trying to get a bad stink off his face.

I am certain this is genetic,
not only for humans but mostly for the plants.

There is a study in JAMA
saying plants contain the most poisons of anything we eat and that these poisons destroy our cells.

I would luv to eat Cilantro
but now I'm even afraid to eat coriander seeds.

Anyhow...
There are sooo many things you can do without cilantro and coriander.

DR

ap said...

For me it's just the tops. I love Indian food, and with a couple of good books, we have learned to make our own quite well at home. We use ground coriander frequently and it never bothers me. I enjoy the flavor, actually. When I smell the seeds in a jar, I imagine that the fresh lemony scent is what people must enjoy about cilantro leaves as well. But feed me leaves and stems, and we're gonna fight...

Maria said...

Hey everyone,

I was reading about bedbugs and discovered that in large infestations, bedbugs give off a cilantro like odour.

Maybe the cilantro hating gene has to do with avoiding parasites?

I hate cilantro. I thought I was alone in my irrational dislike- thanks for the website!

http://bedbugger.com/2008/10/27/ill-take-what-do-bed-bugs-smell-like-for-500-please-alex/

MRG said...

I'm not sure why the blogger is so upset that folks who can't stand cilantro (like me) think it might be genetic. There are lots of other tastes I despise (like coffee - I know, call me crazy). But it is only with cilantro that I know of it having a completely different taste for some people than others. That's what has me wondering if it's genetic (or possibly an allergy, like another poster surmised). Because no one I know that likes cilantro will ever describe it's taste as "soap-like."

Anonymous said...

As a lover of fine cuisine, I am amused not by those whom hate cilantro, but by those that like it. I grew up when children were still spanked, and yes had their mouths washed out with soap, all types and even ajax. The same effect could have been achieved with cilantro, the smell and flavor are overpowering. The same reaction has come from several other people whom I know that also had their mouths washed out with soap, not by those who haven't tried it. I also ate dog food when I was 3, so I can comment on that also. Fact is, I think the people whom like cilantro, just like to say it, "Cilantro." Many cuisines around the world, are exotic, rare and just plain gross, foods of necessity, that is all they have. Anyone watched Anthony Bourdain? Perhaps someone once ran out of parsley and found a weed called cilantro.

Marty said...

I am also a cilantro hater, but to me it's not soapy but explosively strong and nasty on my tongue (not a soapy taste to me, but perhaps it's what others call soapy). Even a small fragment is discernible and explosive. My brother considers it strong but likes the taste and my sister can put - literally - tablespoons - of chopped cilantro on each bite of something and can hardly taste it. Both parents are dead so, short of a seance, are unavailable.

Anonymous said...

I used to think cilantro tasted like soap and hated it, now it doesn't taste soapy to me anymore and I quite like it and use it liberally in some recipes. Sort of the reverse of the poster who stopped liking cilantro at age 30. Also, I was watching a cooking show on tv recently, now I wish I had paid more attention to which show and the exact quote but, the tv chef said something to the effect that it depends on how or where the cilantro is grown - some has that soapy taste, some does not.

Anonymous said...

Uh, no evidence does not mean it doesn't exist. And we do know some taste is quite genetic. which means there's cicumstancial evidence the gene exists. Especially when people's reactions are so disparate with the taste described so differently. So, it's to TBD. It's like gene themselves were just myths until they were actually proven.

Katrina said...

I'm very interested in this because a friend of mine recently told me that she and her dad despise cilantro because it tastes like soap. I thought, "I can't even remember what cilantro tastes like, and I've eaten lots of food with cilantro in it." So the next time I went to the grocery store I sneaked a leaf from the fresh stuff and popped it into my mouth.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the impulse to gag, and by an indescribably revolting old-soap taste in my mouth. I spit out the leaf and realised that the taste wasn't going away. I had to finish my shopping with that horrible lingering taste, and it didn't go away until I got home and washed my mouth out with Scope.

I had no idea that a simple herb could taste so awful. I called my friend and said that cilantro was probably the reason I didn't like certain foods and she said, "Of course it's the reason. Welcome to the club." So, I guess, I officially became aware of cilantro tasting like soap, only at the grand old age of thirty-nine. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's an issue of there being a problem with not liking a food so much as an attempt to explain the fact that cilantro seems to taste completely different to different people. Not different opinions on the same flavor, more like they are not even eating the same thing.

Umang said...

Without being offensive, Erin H. seems to me to be ignorant of science and scientific principles. Taste of anything is biologic in origin. Perhaps this will help the non-bio geeks with their understanding:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/science/12psychedelics.html?ref=science