One sign of changing U.S. demographics is that salsa has replaced ketchup as America's #1 table condiment. One of the popular salsa ingredients is cilantro, described as one of the "most polarizing and divisive food ingredients known." Some people love it; some people hate it. What's interesting is that the lovers and the haters appear to experience the taste differently. Individuals who like cilantro may describe it as "fresh, fragrant or citrusy, whereas those who dislike cilantro report that it tastes like soap, mold, dirt, or bugs." I don't know how people know what bugs taste like, but rarely are polarizing opinions about flavors so extreme. Maybe it's genetic.
Different ethnic groups do seem to have different rates of cilantro dislike, with Ashkenazi Jews scoring highest on the cilantro hate-o-meter (see The Cilantro Gene). Another clue came from twin studies, that show that identical twins tend to share cilantro preferences, whereas regular fraternal twins do not have such a strong correlation. Our genetic code is so big, though, containing about three billion letters, that to find some cilantro gene you'd have to analyze the DNA of like 10,000 people, and obviously genetic researchers have better things to do...or maybe not.
Researchers performed a genome-wide association study among 14,000 participants who reported whether cilantro tasted soapy, with replication in a distinct set of 11,000 people who declared whether they liked cilantro or not. And lo and behold they found a spot on chromosome 11 that seemed to be a match. What's there? A gene called OR6A2 that enables us to smell certain chemicals like E-(2)-Decenal, a primary constituent of cilantro and also...the defensive secretions of stink bugs. So maybe cilantro does taste like bugs! But, cilantro lovers may be genetic mutants that have an inability to smell the unpleasant compound.
That may actually be an advantage, though, since cilantro is healthy stuff. In fact, that's the justification to do these kinds of studies: to see why some people don't like the taste of healthy foods.
Are the cilantro haters really missing out on much, though? Mother nature has been described as the "oldest and most comprehensive pharmacy of all time," and cilantro--called coriander around most of the world--is one of nature's oldest herbal prescriptions, credited with anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-anxiety, and anti-epilepsy properties. However, these are all from preclinical studies, meaning studies done on cells in a test tube or lab animals. Studies like the "Anti-Despair Activity of Cilantro..." in which researchers placed animals in a "despair apparatus" (you don't want to know).
Finally, though, there was a human study, on the anti-arthritis potential of cilantro. There was an earlier study performed in Germany of a lotion made out of cilantro seeds showing it could decrease the redness of a sunburn, demonstrating it had some anti-inflammatory effects )though not as much as an over-the-counter steroid, hydrocortisone, or prescription strength steroid cream). If the cilantro plant is anti-inflammatory, why nto give it to people with osteoarthritis and see if it helps? Researchers gave about 20 sprigs of cilantro daily for two months, and reported a significant drop in ESR--a nonspecific indicator of inflammation--in the cilantro group. How did the patients do clinically, though? The study didn't say, but it did report a rather remarkable 50% drop in uric acid levels, suggesting that huge amounts of cilantro may be useful for those suffering from gout.
The cilantro lovers/haters factoid reminds me of the video Pretty in Pee-nk about the phenomenon of "beeturia," pink urine after beet consumption seen in some people.
As an Ashkenazim myself, I'm excited to have narrowly escaped a cilantro-less existence!
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers
Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.