The coriander plant is used as a spice in the cuisine of many countries, in the form of leaves or seeds. Although it is also called “Chinese parsley”, coriander actually originates in the Mediterranean area. Although its taste is adored by some people, others cannot stand it, associating it with that of soap. The explanation for this major difference in reception lies in our genes.
Why the taste of cilantro is controversial
Fresh coriander is the leafy part of the Coriandrum sativum plant, which is edible in its entirety. Both its leaves and dried seeds have been used by humans for thousands of years.
It is one of the oldest aromatic plants in the world. Since ancient times, coriander seeds were valued by the Romans.
The spice also appears in numerous dishes from the collection of ancient recipes written by the Roman gastronomist Apicius. The Romans and Greeks used coriander as a remedy for jaundice or to soothe stomach pains, as recorded in the writings of Hippocrates.
In the Middle Ages, coriander seeds were used both as a spice in the kitchen and to flavor beer. Coriander was also considered a good aphrodisiac. On the other hand, it was also used instead of incense to smoke rooms in order to protect against plague and cholera.
It is a popular spice due to its rich taste. Coriander leaves have a citrusy, fresh aroma with a slight hint of musk, which is not loved by everyone.
People feel it differently, the strange connection to genetics
It is also the reason why it is not used much in the dishes of North America and Europe. In fact, for a percentage that varies between 4-14% of the US population, the taste of coriander leaves resembles that of soap.
According to a 2012 study, aversion to the taste of this plant is not evenly distributed across the globe. The regions that use it the most are South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, where there are also the fewest people who do not like the taste – between 4-7% of the population – in contrast to areas where this percentage can exceed 20% .
The controversy over the taste has become so extensive that researchers decided to look into the unusual situation. For this, they conducted a genomic study on 14,604 people who associated the taste of coriander with that of soap and 11,851 people for whom the same taste was a delight, writes iflscience.com. All the participants in the study had European origins, even if they did not all live on the Old Continent.
Among those who hated the taste of cilantro, a significant connection was found between their taste and what are called single nucleotide polymorphisms. It is the most common type of genetic variation in humans and involves a single change in the base pairs adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.
Imagine a universal food recipe, but in some dishes a single coriander leaf is replaced by pepper. The change may seem minor, but the effect will be noticeable.
These small genetic changes, in fact, also influence the way we look, how often we get sick or – as in the case of cilantro – our preference or aversion to certain tastes.
“These results confirm that there is a genetic component to coriander taste perception and suggest that taste aversion may have its origin in genetic variations in olfactory receptors,” the study authors concluded.
“We believe that the OR6A2 gene is responsible for this, the variation of which could induce the soapy taste experienced by a part of the population.”