- Cilantro – suddenly it doesn’t taste like soap?
- Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap to Some People?
- What Is Cilantro—and What Does it Taste Like?
- Coriander vs. Cilantro
- The Science Behind the Hate
- Learning to Love Cilantro
- Cilantro Substitutes
- Love To Hate Cilantro? It’s In Your Genes And Maybe, In Your Head
- Are cilantro and coriander the same thing?
- Soapy Tasting Cilantro: Why Cilantro Tastes Soapy
- Pungent Cilantro Plants
- Why Cilantro Tastes Soapy
- Why do stink bugs stink, exactly?
- So, what do stink bugs smell like?
Cilantro – suddenly it doesn’t taste like soap?
So I wanted to check this out because I’ve heard here and there that’s it depends on genetics, but also personal preference, and sometimes even geographical location plays a role.
Anyway, you’ll probably find articles about some 23andMe studies, or a twins study done a number of years ago.
I looked into a few and found an article written by Harold McGee for the New York Times. It’s basically aldehydes that make you taste soap. The reason is because some of the same aldehydes, or variations, occur naturally in the soap making process.
The interesting parts of the article are that a neuroscientist went from hater to lover, and attributes the change partly to association and familiarity. Here’s a snippet from the article.
“I didn’t like cilantro to begin with,” he said. “But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.”
“So I began to like cilantro,” he said. “It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”
Buuuuut where I think it is most interesting is at the end of the article. Harold talks about a Japanese study which attempted to isolate volatiles in cilantro and characterize how, where, when and why they occur or go away.
The article is interesting enough, though not the easiest read. Harold sums it up by saying
…that crushing the leaves will give leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma.
So, to answer your question, or attempt to, I would say that the preparation method might have to do with why you all of a sudden don’t mind the cilantro, or that it doesn’t taste as “soapy”. They mention specifically that they used a mortar and pestle to crush the cilantro. It makes sense because that crushes the cells of the plant. However, they also talk a bit about cutting cilantro and leaving it, which apparently over time will also lose some ‘soapy’ aldehydes.
Of course, if you try eating it after various preparation methods and still find that you hate it or only that salsa is good, then I’m out of ideas. But I would recommend smashing a bunch in a mortar and trying it out, or ask the restaurant if that’s how they made the salsa. It could also just be that because you keep eating it while having dinner with your wife, or out with friends, that your brain just starting saying “Fuck it, I guess this isn’t bad” like the neuroscientist.
Either way, good luck!
Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap to Some People?
Cilantro (or coriander leaves) is probably the most divisive herb there is. Most people find it to be an inoffensive, fresh, citrus-y addition to all sorts of Eastern dishes. Then there are those in the small (but very, very loud) anti-cilantro camp.
These people aren’t just mildly averse to the herb—they loathe it. Cilantrophobes have likened the flavor to an array of disgusting things (moldy shoes and cat pee stick out as two of the worst), but most say it tastes like plain ol’ dirty dish soap. But why? What is it about cilantro that makes it taste soapy to some people? As it turns out, genetics are to blame.
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What Is Cilantro—and What Does it Taste Like?
Cilantro (also called Chinese parsley) is the leafy green part of coriander, an herb native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. While some people may think cilantro tastes bad, it actually has a fresh and citrus-y flavor. That’s why it complements flavorful Mexican and Indian dishes so well. Cilantro also has a refreshing, cooling effect—and it can help tone down the heat from a spicy meal.
Coriander vs. Cilantro
Image zoom FotografiaBasica/Getty Images
Though cilantro and coriander seeds come from the same plant—and the words are often used interchangeably—the flavors and uses couldn’t be more different. Cilantro is usually served fresh, often as a garnish. Coriander seeds, meanwhile, are typically roasted and used whole or ground. Coriander has a warm, sweet flavor and pungent aroma. It’s commonly used in Indian cooking, while cilantro is more common in Mexican, South American, and Asian cooking.
The Science Behind the Hate
Though the invention of the internet has allowed cilantro haters to voice their distaste on a larger scale than before (see: IHateCilantro.com), the herb’s flavor has always been a point of contention.
In a 2001 paper, University of Otago anthropologist Helen Leach details how cilantro became an unwanted herb in many parts of Europe, beginning in the 16th century when John Gerard called it a “stinking herbe” with “leaves of venomous quality.” Other centuries-old documents reveal that many people associated cilantro with bed bugs.
At the same time, people in other parts of the world were enjoying it in everything from chutneys to salsa.
So what gives? Can the dramatic divide over cilantro’s flavor really come down to just cultural differences?
Well, probably not. While familiarity certainly affects which foods you like and dislike, recent studies suggest that people who hate cilantro can also blame genetics—specifically the OR6A2 gene.
It all comes down to how you perceive aldehyde chemicals, organic compounds that are present in cilantro: People who have a certain variation of the OR6A2 gene think cilantro tastes like soap, while people who don’t have that variation think it tastes like, well, cilantro.
A 2012 study from the University of Toronto found that 17 percent of Caucasians disliked cilantro, while only 4 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of people of Middle Eastern descent are anti-cilantro.
Learning to Love Cilantro
If you’re one of the unlucky people who can’t stomach the taste of cilantro, all hope is not lost! Scientists think that it’s possible to overcome the aversion. Bruising the herb through crushing, mincing, or pulverizing (like in this Spicy Parsley-Cilantro Sauce recipe) releases some of the soapy-tasting enzymes. Cooking cilantro—instead of eating it raw—is also thought to reduce the soapiness.
If you truly can’t stand the taste of the controversial herb, try substituting parsley for cilantro. This works especially well if the goal is to garnish the dish, and not to replace flavor—parsley and cilantro look remarkably similar. Dill, sometimes called Lao coriander, can also serve as a replacement.
Love To Hate Cilantro? It’s In Your Genes And Maybe, In Your Head
The very sight of this lacy, green herb can cause some people to scream. The great cilantro debate heats up as scientists start pinpointing cilantrophobe genes. lion heart vintage/Flickr.com hide caption
toggle caption lion heart vintage/Flickr.com
The very sight of this lacy, green herb can cause some people to scream. The great cilantro debate heats up as scientists start pinpointing cilantrophobe genes.
lion heart vintage/Flickr.com
There’s no question that cilantro is a polarizing herb. Some of us heap it onto salsas and soups with gusto while others avoid cilantro because it smells like soap and tastes like crushed bugs.
Some people despise the lacy green herb so much that there’s even an I Hate Cilantro website. There, cilantrophobes post haikus expressing their passionate anger and disgust at the leafy green: “Such acrid debris! This passes as seasoning? Socrates’ hemlock!” writes user Dubhloaich.
But what separates the cilantro lovers from the haters? Is it hard-wired in our genes, as Harold McGee suggested a few years ago in the New York Times, or can we learn to enjoy cilantro if we associate its flavor with fresh fish tacos or bowls of spicy pho? It’s probably not so simple.
Two studies published this week link the aversion for cilantro with specific genes involved in taste and smell. But, just like the flavors of the herb itself, the findings are nuanced: The genes appear to influence our opinion of cilantro but probably not as much as we initially thought.
Geneticists at 23andMe in California asked about 25,000 people whether they like cilantro or think it smells soapy. When they searched the people’s DNA for regions that correlate with a distaste for the herb, a single spot jumped out. And, it sits right next to a cluster of odor-detecting genes, including one that is known to specifically recognize the soapy aromas in cilantro’s bouquet. (They’ll analyze your genome, too, for $299.)
The authors propose that this odor gene contributes to a person’s dislike for cilantro because it increases the herb’s soapy smell.
But, “it didn’t make a huge a difference in cilantro preference from person to person,” Nicholas Eriksson, the lead author on the study, tells The Salt. In fact, their results suggest that a hatred for cilantro has only a small underlying genetic component. He and his team just published their findings on the arXiv.org.
The second study, which was published in the journal Chemical Senses, takes a similar approach. Geneticists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center asked 527 twins whether they thought fresh, chopped cilantro tastes pleasant and smells good.
The scientists pinpointed three more genes that influence our perception of cilantro: Two of the genes are involved with tasting bitter foods and one gene detects pungent compounds, like those in wasabi.
Overall, Eriksson says these studies demonstrate that DNA does shape our opinion of cilantro, but probably not enough that we can’t overcome it. “It isn’t like your height, that you’re stuck with. People can change it,” he says.
So is there hope for the extreme cilantrophobes? Maybe.
As Nature reports, McGee offers a strategy for building up an appreciation for the herb: Try a cilantro pesto. Crushing the leaves, he says, releases enzymes that convert the soapy, stinky compounds into more mild aromas. The recipe for the pesto is on the website.
But Julia Child, an avowed cilantro hater, said she would just pick it out and throw it on the floor, Nature reports.
Are cilantro and coriander the same thing?
While leafy cilantro (also called “Chinese parsley” and sometimes “coriander leaves”) and coriander seeds come from the same plant, you’d never know it from their aromas and flavors. They are entirely different. The herb, cilantro, is often used in Asian and Latin Americancooking and has a lively citrusy and, to some, a slightly soapy flavor. The seed, coriander, is sweet and toasty with a warm aroma and flavor. It is often paired with cumin and cinnamon, which share some of those traits.
There are some people who seem to perceive only the “soapiness” of cilantro, and can’t stand it. In my experience, when the cilantro is cooked or pureed (or even chopped very finely) the perception of its soapiness is often diminished. Also, the more a “cilantrophobe” is exposed to cilantro the less likely he or she is to perceive it as unpleasant. If you love cilantro and regularly cook for someone who doesn’t, try adding it in small, well-chopped or cooked amounts to your food, and see if the perception changes.
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For more information on cooking with fresh herbs, see 11 Herbs Every Cook Should Use.
Cilantro (aka the leaves of the coriander plant) is a tasty herb to most people. A pleasing combination of flavors reminiscent of parsley and citrus, the herb is a common ingredient in many cuisines around the world. However, some people find cilantro revolting, including, famously, the chef Julia Child. Of course some of this dislike may come down to simple preference, but for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves. This genetic quirk is usually only found in a small percent of the population, though it varies geographically. Interestingly, places where cilantro is especially popular, such as Central America and India, have fewer people with these genes, which might explain how the herb was able to become such a mainstay in those regions. East Asians have the highest incidence of this variation, with some studies showing that nearly 20% of the population experiences soapy-tasting cilantro. There is some evidence that cilantrophobes can overcome their aversion with repeated exposure to the herb, especially if it is crushed rather than served whole, but many people simply choose to go with their genetic inclinations and avoid its soapiness altogether.
Soapy Tasting Cilantro: Why Cilantro Tastes Soapy
Just as some folks pronounce certain words in different ways, we all experience a disparate taste to some foods, particularly cilantro. It seems there are no two ways about it; you either love cilantro’s flavor or you hate it, and many people say cilantro tastes like soap. So the question is, does your cilantro taste like soap and if so, what are the reasons why cilantro tastes soapy?
Pungent Cilantro Plants
To my taste buds, cilantro tastes like a combination of fresh, mild, green-tasting parsley with a citrus zest. To my mother’s taste buds, cilantro plants are pungent, nasty tasting herbs that she refers to as “yucky soapy tasting cilantro.”
While this difference in preferences only requires the omission of cilantro from any of the meals I serve to my Mom (grumble, grumble), it really does make me wonder why cilantro tastes like soap to her but not to me.
Why Cilantro Tastes Soapy
Coriandrum sativum, known as either cilantro or coriander, contains several aldehydes in its leafy foliage. A description of “soapy tasting cilantro” is the result of the presence of these aldehydes. Aldehydes are chemical compounds produced when making soap, which some folks describe cilantro as tasting akin to, as well as by some insects, like stink bugs.
Our interpretation of how cilantro tastes is somewhat genetic. A description of soapy tasting versus pleasant can be attributed to two olfactory receptor genes. This was discovered by comparing the genetic code of tens of thousands of individuals who either liked or disliked the flavor of cilantro. Despite this compelling data, it was also found that carrying the gene did not necessarily result in disliking cilantro. Here, nature versus nurture comes into play. If you have been routinely exposed to cilantro in your diet, chances are good that gene or no, you have acclimated to the flavor.
The leafy green portion of the coriander plants, cilantro is a delicate widely used herb in cuisines around the globe — just not in my Mom’s house. Because it is a delicate herb, most recipes call for using it fresh to maximize the bright aroma and flavor. It’s possible for many people to begin to tolerate, or even enjoy, the flavor of cilantro where previously it tasted of soap.
If you want to “turn” the taste buds of a cilantro hater, try crushing the tender leaves. By bruising the leaves via mincing, crushing or pulverizing, enzymes are released which break down the aldehydes that are an affront to some. Cooking will also reduce the offensive flavor, again by breaking down the aldehydes and allowing other, more pleasant, aromatic compounds to shine.
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!
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
Stink Bug Odor
The pungent odor of a stink bug is similar to that of the cooking herb cilantro. Others might say it smells like sulfur and ammonia or rancid meat. However, some people are not sensitive to the scent and do not recognize it at all. The insect only produces the foul aroma when it feels threatened or if crushed.
Why Do Stink Bugs Stink?
Basic self-defense is what makes stink bugs stink. These pests have special glands on their bodies filled with a combination of chemicals. If it senses a threat, these substances spread into the exoskeleton and evaporate into the air, producing an acrid odor. The stink bug does this to discourage predators because they cannot sting or bite.
Preventing Stink Bugs
In the late fall, stink bugs enter homes and businesses for warmth and protection. Unfortunately, they are a nuisance that can destroy house plants and landscaping. The pest is responsible for much of the damage to pear and apple trees in the Mid-Atlantic region. If you see large numbers of them indoors, you likely have an infestation.
Sealing cracks and keeping windows closed tightly may help prevent stink bugs from wandering inside. You can vacuum up the insects to remove them, but this may still cause them to release their stench. Call Western Pest Services to keep stink bugs out of your home or business and steer clear of that horrible smell.
When it comes to gross insects you don’t want inside your home, stink bugs are up there. And, lucky for everyone, it’s that time of year when stink bugs love to creep their way into people’s homes.
There are more than 250 types of stink bugs in America, but the most common are called brown marmorated stink bugs, says entomologist Chad Gore, PhD, the Market Technical Director with Ehrlich Pest Control. These critters—which are large by insect standards and have a marbled pattern on their backs—only recently showed up in the U.S. (they were initially found in Pennsylvania in 2001) and were “believed to be imported from Asia in shipping containers,” Gore says.
By the way: Stink bugs spread quickly, love to destroy your plants, and have a thing for crawling inside houses when you’re not looking. “Stink bugs are a nuisance pest to home and business owners because they squeeze into our homes through structural gaps and cracks,” Gore says. “That screen door that doesn’t shut just right, or the crack forming under your window are the perfect opportunities for them to sneak inside.”
“They often get in through gaps and cracks that homeowners don’t see, such as those along your roofline that lead to your attic, or along the foundation leading to a crawlspace,” he continues. “They can then make their way from these ‘out of sight’ areas into the living areas of your home.”
And, true to their name, stink bugs have the potential to, well, stink.
Why do stink bugs stink, exactly?
These bugs don’t stink for kicks—they actually release an odor as a defense mechanism that’s used to fend off predators, like birds and fish. “When it feels threatened, the stink bug will produce a fluid that smells and emit it through their scent glands,” Gore says. “They can spray it up to several inches.”
And, they can definitely control when they release these compounds. “In nymphs the chemicals are produced from the top of the abdomen, while in adults there is a hole on each side of the thorax where the chemicals exit the body,” says Matthew Bertone, PhD, entomologist and director of the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic at North Carolina State University.
You don’t just have to be mistaken for a predator for that stink to come out. If you squash a stink bug, “you’re likely to get some of that fluid on you or release it when the insect is smashed,” Gore says.
So, what do stink bugs smell like?
The stink bug smell can vary, and not everyone experiences it the same way—and some people can’t smell it at all. “The chemical blend may make the scent differ between types of insect, so it is hard to describe the general odor, but it is an acrid but somewhat sweet smell,” says Bertone. “I liken it to a very sour, fermenting apple, but other people detect other odors.”
“Stink bugs are of no harm to humans—only plants.”
On the flip side, Gore says “most people describe it as a peppery odor, similar to coriander or cilantro.” (That’s because one of the compounds produced by stink bugs can actually be found in cilantro.)
Rest assured, while the odor can be annoying or unpleasant, it’s not going to hurt you. “Stink bugs are of no harm to humans—only plants,” Gore says.
Got stink bugs around your place? Do your best to seal up any cracks and crevices, install screens over air vents, and use sweeps or stoppers for any doors that lead outside.
If you happen to spot one in your home (ick), Gore says a vacuum is your best weapon. “Simply vacuum them up, empty the canister or bag into a garbage bag, seal the garbage bag tightly, and take it to an exterior trash can immediately,” he says.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of them, check out our step-by-step plan on how to get rid of stink bugs.
Additional reporting by Alisa Hrustic
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Korin Miller Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more.