There are some foods out there which are notoriously divisive, but few are quite as controversial as cilantro. While it can make a meal for many people, the addition of this innocuous-looking herb has the ability to ruin many a tasty dish for others - making it taste like soap. This has led to unparalleled hatred, with some even writing haiku about how much they hate cilantro.
In fact, there are communities of people who have grouped together to lament their hatred of cilantro, creating Facebook pages and websites dedicated to the cause. But this begs the question: why do some people hate cilantro and others love it?
To answer this question for the ages, scientists did what they do best: they conducted a series of experiments.
At this point, it's worth noting just how many people hate cilantro. A genetic study conducted by the University of Toronto and published in the journal Flavour found there's an ethnic component to people's dislike of the herb.
In a study of 1,600 people of different ethnicities, of those whose family tree could be traced back to East Asia, 21% hated the herb. Whereas 97% of those with Middle Eastern roots reported that they liked the taste of cilantro. Caucasians, however, like East Asians, appeared to have a higher likelihood of disliking cilantro and 17% said they weren't a fan.
Other ethnicities were found to sit somewhere in the middle. Fourteen percent of those with an African background reported disliking the herb, 7% from South Asia didn't like it, and 4% of Hispanics said that it wasn't their jam either.
Researchers then tried to discern whether or not gender influenced how people felt about the herb but found no correlation. In addition to this, many people in the survey reported having no particular like or dislike of cilantro.
So what exactly does it taste like to people on each side of the fence?
The piece in Flavour revealed that those who love it reported cilantro having a citrus-y taste and smelling fresh and fragrant. The haters, however, said that it tasted moldy and compared it to a number of unpleasant things including soap, dirt, and bugs.
Scientific researchers then suggested that this cultural divide demonstrated that exposure to the herb played a huge role in influencing people's opinions of it. Hispanics were the most likely group to love cilantro and this reflected the fact that the herb is a key component of a number of their dishes like tacos, salsa, and soups.
Cilantro is also a key ingredient in a number of other cultural cuisines like Indian food and it's not uncommon to use in Thai dishes either. In fact, it's actually a pretty common ingredient, which meant that this suggestion quickly fell apart.
The herb also has different names in different parts of the world, and in Europe, it's known as coriander. It's also been described as Chinese parsley, Thai parsley, and Afghan parsley, and it wasn't until the 80s that cilantro itself actually became popular.
Okay, I hear you say, get to the point. Well, getting to the bottom of this mystery is no mean feat, but researchers did uncover another piece of the puzzle back in 2012. Another study published in Flavour of 14,000 Europeans found that those who reported disliking it had a higher sensitivity to organic compounds called aldehydes, which are what create the herb's pungent smell.
There's a number of aldehydes out there, and they all have different smells, but most are said to be pleasant and fresh. For researchers, this discovery was key to working out why cilantro is so polarizing. The unsaturated aldehydes in cilantro have been described as having a fresh, citrus smell, but the common aldehydes called (E)-2-alkenals are said to have a soapy smell.
But this puzzle is not quite solved... yet.
23andMe is a California-based company that works with DNA. They usually deal with things like ancestry, but they've also tried to solve the cilantro mystery. They surveyed 25,000 people, asking them what their opinion of cilantro is, and then took a look at their DNA so that they could find a connection of some sort - and they discovered that our opinion could be hardwired... sort of.
The company found that if you have the odor-detecting gene which hones in on the soapy aldehydes cilantro gives off, you'll be more inclined to dislike it. Whereas if you don't have it, you'll simply be honing in on its pleasant citrus-y smell.
To discover how twins react to cilantro, check out the video below:
But while our natural reaction to cilantro is more than likely in our DNA, it is possible to go from hating the herb to loving it. Northwestern University neuroscientist Jay Gottfried said that people who hate the herb do so because of how their brain is programmed to divide stimuli and that it is possible to rewire this, something he did himself.
He said that by eating cilantro around people who enjoyed it, he was able to create positive associations in his mind with the herb. In addition to this, he slowly changed his perception of cilantro by adding it to his food in small amounts and recommends cutting up the leaves so that they are less aromatic before using them by changing their chemical makeup.
So there you have it - why some people love and others hate cilantro. And I'm sorry if you fall into the category of a hater, but hey, now you know that it is possible to start liking the herb and writing as a lover, I'd definitely recommend it.
Seriously. A taco is not a taco without a good few cilantro leaves!