The Cilantro Gene

The Cilantro Gene
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Why are there such polarizing opinions about the taste of the fresh herb cilantro (also known as coriander leaves)?

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One sign of changing U.S. demographics is that salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s #1 table condiment, one of the popular ingredients of which is cilantro–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 hateometer. Another clue came from twin studies, which 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 and cilantro tastes of like 10,000 people, and obviously genetic researchers have better things to do–or maybe not.

Here we present the results of 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 match. What’s there? A gene called OR6A2, which 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, anti-epilepsy, etc., etc., properties. But these are all from preclinical studies, meaning on cells in a test tube or lab rats, studies like the anti-despair activity of cilantro in mice, testing animals placed in a despair apparatus.

Finally, though, a human study, on the anti-arthritis potential of cilantro. There was a study performed in Germany of a lotion made out of cilantro seeds, showing it could decrease the redness of a sunburn, showing it had some anti-inflammatory effects, though not as much as an over-the-counter steroid cream, hydrocortisone, or a prescription- strength steroid cream. Well, if the cilantro plant is anti-inflammatory, let’s give it to some people with osteoarthritis and see if it helps. They gave them about 20 sprigs of cilantro daily for two months, and reported a significant drop in ESR in the cilantro group, a nonspecific indicator of inflammation. How did the patients do clinically, though? They didn’t say, but did report a rather remarkable decrease in uric acid levels–a 50% drop, suggesting that huge amounts of cilantro may be useful for those suffering from a different arthritis, called gout.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Angela Redmon via Flickr and Psylab.

One sign of changing U.S. demographics is that salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s #1 table condiment, one of the popular ingredients of which is cilantro–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 hateometer. Another clue came from twin studies, which 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 and cilantro tastes of like 10,000 people, and obviously genetic researchers have better things to do–or maybe not.

Here we present the results of 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 match. What’s there? A gene called OR6A2, which 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, anti-epilepsy, etc., etc., properties. But these are all from preclinical studies, meaning on cells in a test tube or lab rats, studies like the anti-despair activity of cilantro in mice, testing animals placed in a despair apparatus.

Finally, though, a human study, on the anti-arthritis potential of cilantro. There was a study performed in Germany of a lotion made out of cilantro seeds, showing it could decrease the redness of a sunburn, showing it had some anti-inflammatory effects, though not as much as an over-the-counter steroid cream, hydrocortisone, or a prescription- strength steroid cream. Well, if the cilantro plant is anti-inflammatory, let’s give it to some people with osteoarthritis and see if it helps. They gave them about 20 sprigs of cilantro daily for two months, and reported a significant drop in ESR in the cilantro group, a nonspecific indicator of inflammation. How did the patients do clinically, though? They didn’t say, but did report a rather remarkable decrease in uric acid levels–a 50% drop, suggesting that huge amounts of cilantro may be useful for those suffering from a different arthritis, called gout.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Angela Redmon via Flickr and Psylab.

Doctor's Note

This reminds me of the video Pretty in Pee-nk about the phenomenon of “beeturia,” pink urine after beet consumption, seen in some people.

The flavor compound in tarragon may not be as benign in large doses. See The Safety of Tarragon.

For those who don’t mind the taste of bugs, I have some nutritional info: 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!

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