Why Some Like Cilantro and Others Hate It

Image Credit: Sally Plank

Why Some Like Cilantro & Others Hate It

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 had been 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 (although not as much as an over-the-counter steroid, hydrocortisone, or prescription strength steroid cream). If the cilantro plant is anti-inflammatory, why not 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.

For those that don’t mind the taste of bugs, I have some nutritional info in Good Grub: The Healthiest Meat and Bug Appétit: Barriers to Entomophagy.

As an Ashkenazim myself, I’m excited to have narrowly escaped a cilantro-less existence!

In health,

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:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


56 responses to “Why Some Like Cilantro & Others Hate It

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  1. My cilantro taste buds must be dead or I’m getting bad stuff.. Parsley is the same..It has no taste to me.. I use mint instead in my salsa…. As for bugs… nothing with a face and nothing with a mother…. splat!

    1. I love cilantro and I use it a lot. But sometimes the plant has no taste, but I put the plant in good soil and leave it alone for a few weeks then it taste better. Personally , I think it’s the soil it’s grown in. I have had that trouble cus cilantro doesn’t like the weather where I live it’s too humid.

      1. It’s funny to me that cilantro elicits such strong reactions in people, and I cant say that I really love it either – though I use it. But! coriander , wow, thats my aroma therapy. Heaven on earth. I will layer in the onions, garlic , ginger for a curry, then the cumin and mustard seed, and at the right moment, the coriander. Never get tired of it.

    1. I experience the other way around. Cilantro tastes like a bitter herb, not like soap, and yet I despise the bitter smell and taste. However as I get older, my taste buds become less sensitive and I am now eating foods with a small amount of cilantro.

      1. I hate cilantro, but it doesn’t taste like soap to me, either. It tastes like a combination of very rotten lettuce and metal to me.

  2. Being raised mostly in the South, I was never exposed to cilantro. Once I got out into the world, l discovered cilantro in an Indian restaurant where I interrogated the waiter about whether they were properly rinsing their dishes.

    The interesting thing (to me at least) is that I even though I started out experiencing cilantro as ‘soapy’, I didn’t avoid it and today love the stuff with no soapy flavor, even if I eat the stuff straight up. I didn’t think my genes could change that fast though maybe it’s an epigenetic phenomenon.

    1. Not trying to be troll, I say this in all love and respect but I’m from Texas and don’t understand anyone from the South not having cilantro, you really never had pico? Peace love and respect, your comment just made me chuckle. :)

      1. No offense taken. Glad to’ve given you cause to chuckle!

        While Texas may well be part of the South, I’ve always harbored my doubts given y’all’s enthusiasm for puttin’ sugar on your grits. 8^) Perhaps my outlook was tainted by my Cajun history teacher who used Sam Houston’s unwillingness to swear allegiance to the Confederacy as a way to distinguish the deeper commitment to The Cause of the states that lay east of the Sabine.

        As ubiquitous as TexMex cuisine is today, I’m old enough to where it wasn’t readily available in the deep South when I was a child and I don’t remember seeing salsa till I went off to college.

    1. Hi Dave. Do you know where you read this. I’ve never seen this written in any credible source (or anywhere for that matter).

      1. I will have to research again where I read that. Something to do with the mercury and the amalgam fillings. I guess the cilantro helps remove heavy metals and from what I remember, you were advised to have your amalgam fillings removed before eating a bunch of cilantro or the out-gassing of the mercury may be bad for you.

  3. I’m curious.
    I HATED cilantro the first few times I tried it. It tasted like soap and bugs and dirt and every other nasty taste I could think of. Somehow about the 4th or 5th time I was exposed to it, though, I love it, which I do to this day, 25 or 30 years later. Has that happened to other people?

    1. I had a seasoning in SE asia on a one time trip. It was horrible, ruined the meals. They laughed at me, called it “friendly weed”. Someway it was later identified as Cilantro. Back here in Il, I stayed away from it for years. Now I eat it often and want more. So either the Asian weed was different or I acquired the taste.

        1. Hello Willis, I am a volunteer moderator for Nutrition Facts and a plant based dietitian located in Scottsdale, Arizona. Try this link to find all of the information that is on Nutrition Facts relating to Uric Acid and other confounding foods that may be causing difficulties. Why have you been asked to reduce your Uric Acid intake>

    2. Yes! I hated it so much the first few times I had it I couldn’t even eat the food it was in. Now I LOVE it…could eat it in nearly everything. The same thing happened with rosemary. My brother always says cinnamon tastes like soap. I don’t get it. I have always loved cinnamon. Interesting article, Dr Greger!

    3. Apparently pretty common, seems to be an acquired taste. Unfortunately there are those who refuse to acquire new tastes, cling tenaciously to their boring and even dangerous preferences, and miss out on the joys of discovery and expanding their horizons! (I seem to be mired in them)

      1. I completely agree with you, Vege-tater. When we hear Dr. Greger talk about something really healthy, like amla, that is well, challenging tasting, let’s take it as a challenge! How can I eat this and enjoy it? I am determined to find a way! I like cilantro mixed in with beans, grains or tempeh. Add some herbs to put in more flavor and antioxidants. Life and cooking can both be exciting adventures. If the adventure is a little tough the first time, as President Clinton would say, “Mend it , don’t end it”.
        John S

        1. You are right John, in fact it was the challenge of making favorite recipes healthier that motivated me to try new combinations and alternatives, since food is just tastes and textures, it can usually be done, or even improved. I do find it to be an ongoing adventure, but most people I know seem to just see the obstacles involved in relearning what they “know”…and refuse to grow. It would be nice to be able to share the journey with someone.

    1. Me too! But stink bugs are less offensive than skunks . . . Course like Chris above, I growed up in Texas and a day without picante sause & cilantro is less spicy than desirable. I’ve lived in SE Asia for almost 20 years now, and in Thailand & the Philippines they eat cooked bugs. Can’t speculate on all, but crickets and grasshoppers are pretty good, sweet. If I were to leave the vegan world and go back to “meat”, I’d actually prefer crickets to bigger critters . . .

  4. Judging from my own experience, cilantro (like just about every other food) can grow on you with exposure. Even for those whose first reaction is “yuck”, with not even many repeated tastings, you come to accept it and eventually appreciate it! This is my own anecdotal experience and repeated tries with cilantro worked much as it had with lima beans, beets, and brussel sprouts – which took me a few tastings to come to love. So those with gene OR62A, don’t give up! Cilantro’s a treasure, from its roots, stems, leaves & seeds, and a worthy addition to the plant-based pharma-kitchen.

  5. For me, the taste of cilantro is not the most pleasant.
    (some soapy taste)
    But I eat it a lot, due to the beneficial properties.

  6. What I have determined (going from hating cilantro to loving it – and going beyond food addictions) is that when my body NEEDS something, I really, really like it… When I do NOT need it, it doesn’t taste as great – and I can take it or leave it. After detoxing for many years, I trust my body now and it seems to know what is good for it. As seasons change, my diet changes.

    1. Patricia, your rationale is similar to comment I often hear: ‘if the body craves it, you must need it (or something in it)’ and I hear this from people often, especially when they talk about giving up meat and how much they sometimes just have to have a steak or a burger.

      It does make sense that your body could be trying to tell you something, that is, until you apply unhealthy food to the logic. Someone can crave Haagen Daz, Cheetos, a Diet Coke, a Kit Kat, pizza, ribs or any number of nutritionally-questionable foods. But we don’t have research (yet anyway) to show that this means that the body is lacking some nutrient to be found in the junk food.)

      More likely, our cravings are dictated by our habitual taste patterns that are tastes and textures we have grown to like or love thru repetition. Through family and social experiences, we learn to have certain expectations from certain foods. When we enjoy those tastes, we long for those taste sensations. But as we have all experienced, especially transitioning to a WFPB diet, our tastes–and cravings–can change.

      Of course, there ARE some instances where cravings can indicate a need in the body. For example, some people who are anemic often crave ice. And there has been research looking into whether there are addictive properties to some sugar or fatty foods that might lead to addiction-like cravings. Dr. Gregor did a post exploring this research http://nutritionfacts.org/video/are-fatty-foods-addictive/ – nutrition professor and volunteer moderator, ‪ Martica Heaner, PhD‬‬

      1. Patricia,, I’m so happy to hear that after detoxing, you’re now in tune with what your body needs! When you are in tune, you are able to nourish yourself properly instead of being distracted by food addictions. I think what Martica is saying is that when people crave a burger or junk food, they’re letting themselves believe that their bodies “need” these foods. Really, it’s not a need. This is comparable to an alcoholic “needing” another drink. Toxic food is everywhere in our society, and many people are addicted to it without realizing it. They then confuse a craving with a need. Patricia, congratulations to you on understanding the difference.

  7. Genetics aside, I used to love Cilantro until a friend commented how it smells just like stink bugs. Sooo true. Not a huge fan anymore.n LOL

  8. As some of the others here, I think it taste a little soapy but I still like it, but more in some foods than others. However, as far as stink bugs, I always thought they smelled like almond extract.

  9. I love cilantro (leaves), but hate coriander (seeds). I “grow” it in my garden–in parentheses because it comes up voluntarily when I allow it to go to seed. It’s very hardy, surviving low December temperatures.

  10. I wish to say that I cannot bear the taste of coriander leaves.HoweverI use in cooking my meals a lot of grind coriander seeds which I found delicious.

  11. I am very interested in this quote from the article/video about “cilantro-haters” : “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.” As a cancer patient who is trying to eat all the “right stuff,” I am forever amazed at how much I truly hate mushrooms, sweet potatoes, beets, blueberries, ginger, etc… I could go on and on. These are things that make me gag. I would dearly like to know if there is more research that explains this “genetic predisposition” to food. Please do tell! Thank you.

    1. When it comes to food so much of it is nurture vs. nature. We mostly assume our preferences are a nurture thing as in what we grew up with or grew to like. The cilantro genetic thing causes so much interest as the divide between cilantro lovers and haters is so profound with almost no middle ground. I personally think the same thing holds for blue cheese – but I digress… To my knowledge the cilantro gene is unique in affording some people an ability to taste an aspect of the plant that others do not have. On another note, very often chemotherapy patients notice their ability to taste or the way familiar foods taste has changed because of the exposure to chemicals in their therapy. Often they experience a metallic taste in their mouth so food does not taste “right”. Several chemotherapy agents have a neurotoxic side effect cause tingling in hands and feet. Perhaps this same action is altering the function of the nerves in their tongue and mouth so certain foods register differently than they did before. Sometime this is self limited but sometimes it persists.

  12. For many years I couldn’t stand the taste of cilantro. Coincidentally, about eighteen months ago when I started on WFPBD I developed a taste for it. Now it’s one of my favourite herbs, and cilantro peanut pesto high on my list of most used recipes. HHMMM!

  13. In our house we have always called cilantro “stink bug leaves” because to us it really does taste the way stink bugs smell! (I grew up in South Africa where we had lots of stink bugs, so the smell is pretty distinctive.) I can’t believe there is actual scientific evidence that it is the same chemical compound! Imagine that.

  14. I force myself to eat coriander for the health benefits. If I prepare it myself I make sure it is finely crushed or cooked as the nasty “undefined” taste (actually smell) greatly diminish this way. I enjoy the taste remainder after the aldehydes have vaporised..
    On a side note, I find that my sense of smell is good, I readily pick up smells of who went through a corridor in the last 15+ minutes.. Unfortunately I can get ill from peoples perfume as well..
    Aldehydes are fragrant in many other dishes like those containing for example vanilla or cinnamon which I enjoy.
    I sometimes suspect that those without this/these gene(s) may experience foods and smells entirely different – somewhat like how we only have 3 colour receptors, but a few lucky ones have an extra functional one (but we have yet to define the extra colours they see).

  15. I used to get tomatoes plus cilantro and used it with rice, broccoli and salmon, and the taste was alright… I liked it. This was many years ago. I recently bought some new brand of salsa, though, and it tasted like it had grass in it that had been chopped up and that there were some grasshoppers in the mix. I could not eat it. The stink bug compound makes perfect sense. It tastes the way stink bugs smell. I do not see how others do not pick up on it, or how I didn’t pick up on it before. It’s disgusting. Too bad because I do have arthritis! Not Ashkenazi. The majority of my ancestors are welsh, Irish and otherwise European.

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