The scientific reason why you hate (or love) cilantro

A good debate centers around a harmless herb-cilantro or coriander. People either love it and use it in everything from fish tacos to chicken salad, or they can’t stand the taste of it. For some, cilantro tastes like soap, dirt, crushed bugs or metal shavings. It’s gained such a negative reaction that someone used their time, energy and money to create an online community called I Hate Cilantro, which has more than 5,000 members.

Before you join the club and publicly announce your aversion to cilantro, you may want to learn why you don’t like it.

According to The New York Times, the Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word “coriander” is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug. (Gross, right?) It adds that the cilantro aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes” and that “Europeans often have difficulty in overcoming their initial aversion to this smell.” Research seems to confirm that your DNA plays a large part in this. A genetics firm, 23andMe, asked 50,000 customers whether they liked the taste of cilantro and whether they thought it had a soapy taste. They then compared the DNA of the participants. A common genetic variation was found among the cilantro haters that’s associated with the trait in a subset of people with European ancestry.

RELATED: Do men taste food differently? 

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Do Men Taste Food Differently?
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Do Men Taste Food Differently?

Do men and women taste sweet, salty, bitter and sour flavors differently? Read on to find out.

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It is a well-known fact that women generally have more taste buds than men and therefore may have more sensitive taste. Some studies have shown that women may have a lower threshold detection for sour, bitter and salty tastes than men, while other studies demonstrate no significant differences.

Women also generally demonstrate stronger olfactory performance, which may help explain their enhanced taste sensitivity since smell and taste work together to create the sensation of flavor.

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A gender difference in taste perception is seen in children as well. In a 2008 Danish study involving 8,900 Danish school children, scientists found that girls were better at recognizing tastes than boys for all concentrations of sweet and sour flavors. On average, boys needed approximately 10% more sourness and 20% more sweetness to recognize flavors.

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This same study found that girls preferred more muted flavors, while boys had a preference for more extreme flavors. Boys liked super sweet flavors and gave top marks to the most sour-tasting samples.

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Interestingly, as children mature into teenagers they experience a shift in taste preference and perception. At around 13-14 years of age, individuals develop greater sensitivity to sourness, less preference for super sweet and a less fussy attitude toward new foods.

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Sex hormones may also play a role in gender differences of taste sensitivity and preference. Studies show changes in taste threshold for saltiness and bitterness during human pregnancy and suggest that hormones act directly on both the central nervous system and on taste buds.

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Sweet and Salty

Research on gender differences in taste sensitivity and perception for adults has shown mixed results for perceiving sweet and salty flavors. Some studies have shown that there are insignificant differences between the sexes, while other research has found women to perceive sweetness with greater intensity and suggests that men like sweet or salty food more than females.

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Bitter

Genetics plays a role in determining a person’s ability to taste bitter compounds PROP and PTC, and increased sensitivity to PROP means an increased sensitivity to bitter taste. This genetic variation for PROP sensitivity is related to the supertaster trait, which is characterized by the ability to perceive flavors more intensely. Women are more likely to be supertasters than men, with 35% of women categorized as supertasters while 15% of men are categorized with this trait.

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Sour

A 2006 study examined how the balance of sweet and sour tastes affected fruit consumption for boys and girls and found that boys had a greater preference for sour tastes.

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Fat

While it is commonly believed that men prefer diets rich in protein and fat and women choose foods high in carbohydrate/fat and sugar, research from Sweden suggests that there is no significant gender difference among obese patients. Instead, recent studies suggest that genes play an important role in fat preference; last year, Penn State researchers discovered that people with a certain form of CD36 gene have stronger preference for foods high in fat content.

While science has provided some insight into sex differences in taste sensitivity and perception, more studies are necessary for conclusive results.

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Another study by the group confirmed that one’s environment and culture might play a large role. The study found that 14 to 21 percent of people of East Asian, African and Caucasian ancestry disliked cilantro, while 3 to 7 percent of South Asians, Hispanics and Middle Easterners disliked it. Perhaps that’s no surprise because cilantro is a popular supporting ingredient in traditional dishes in these regions.

If you’re team cilantro and enjoy adding it to dishes, good for you! Its dark-green leaves contain antioxidants, essential oils, vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A and C, beta-carotene) and dietary fiber. It puts a little pep in your step while adding explosive flavor to soups, sauces, marinades, salads and Homemade Guacamole.

If you simply can’t warm up to cilantro, other options exist. One common substitute is parsley, which is very similar to cilantro but more mild in flavor. Start with something simple such as our easy Parsely Butter. When you’re ready for more, check out our best recipes for cooking with fresh herbs.

RELATED: Recipes for leftover herbs 

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What to Do with Leftover Herbs

Read on to learn how to use up leftover herbs.

Pesto

First off: Pesto. And think beyond basil: Use any combination of tender herbs, such as parsley, mint, and cilantro, and your choice of nuts to make Leftover-Herb Pesto.

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

The Whole Leaf

Add whole herb leaves to salads. For food editors Shira Bocar and Laura Rege, that's a favorite way to finish off a bunch. Use these recipes with tarragon, parsley, and basil as a starting point.

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

Potato Salad

Dress up your favorite potato salad by adding herbs. Laura likes this light, flavorful recipe that uses chives, chervil, and tarragon, but use whatever you have.

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

Just a Pinch

A mix of herbs or a pinch of one will add bright, green flavors to a grain salad like this quinoa one. Our barley salad is all about the herbs; just be easygoing about which ones you use.

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

Go Cheesy

Use leftover herbs to flavor yogurt cheese. Experiment with different ratios to see what you like best -- or just use whatever mix the fridge holds!

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Totally Classic

The classic use for leftover herbs is to chop them and fold them into butter. Keep the herb butter in the fridge for two weeks or in the freezer for several months.

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A Finishing Touch

Food editor Greg Lofts' favorite way to use up herbs is to gently warm olive oil in a pan and add the herbs to the oil, then let it cool down before straining. This makes an herb-infused oil for vinaigrettes or to use as a finishing oil.

Use your oil in this Classic Vinaigrette or whisk three to four parts herb-infused oil into one part red- or white-wine vinegar, and season with salt and pepper.

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The Sweet Way

Sweeten lemonade and tea with an herbal simple syrup -– or just mix the herbal syrup with sparkling water or soda for a refreshing summer drink. Greg recommends using leftover mint, basil, tarragon, or cilantro for this: “Add a handful of herbs in with equal amounts sugar and water and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temp, strain, and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.”

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

Garnish It

Got a sprig or two? Add them to a cocktail as a flavorful garnish. We like tarragon in a grown-up blueberry frappe and basil with watermelon in a margarita. This is definitely a place to experiment.

Image Credit: Martha Stewart

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