I’m not one of those people who is genetically disposed to hate cilantro (in fact, I love it), but I do have a serious problem with another vegetable — celery. I hate it so much I can’t even keep it in my refrigerator because I can’t stand even opening the fridge door and smelling its horrific odor. I have such a strong distaste for it that I can completely relate to those well-documented cilantro-phobes, like Julia Child, who say things like: “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor,” if they found it on their plates.
According to The New York Times, the aversion to cilantro, and its reminder flavors (people complain the herb tastes like soap or reminds them of bedbug odor) make sense, since chemically they are similar to both bugs and soaps. “Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.”
Further research has shown it’s not the flavor but the scent of cilantro that is offensive to some people, and it seems to be because those who have an aversion actually smell less well than others. They aren’t smelling the “good” part of cilantro while those of us who like cilantro do smell that part. (I would guess that something similar is behind my aversion to celery; it’s the smell that is so awful to me. When it’s cooked in a soup, I don’t mind the flavor at all.)
It looks like cilantrophobia is a genetic thing, as Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has preliminarily determined by testing twins for cilantro dislike. It’s likely that identical twins will both either find cilantro wonderful or horrendous, suggesting — but not proving — a real gene-based link.
Studies have found that between 4 percent and 14 percent of people who taste cilantro think it tastes rotten or like soap. The percentage varies depending on ethnicity and is lower in cultures where the herb is a common feature in local cuisine.
What about other foods?
Turns out we are all tasting the world a little differently, depending on our genes, according to a 2013 study in Current Biology called “Olfaction: It Makes a World of Scents.” Can you smell apples? Many people can’t. Tomatoes are another fruit that different people perceive differently. Another 2013 study looked at specific mechanisms behind why people perceived foods differently.
“We were surprised how many odors had genes associated with them,” said study author Dr. Jeremy McRae in a news release. “If this extends to other odors, then we might expect everyone to have their own unique set of smells that they are sensitive to. These smells are found in foods and drinks that people encounter every day, such as tomatoes and apples. This might mean that when people sit down to eat a meal, they each experience it in their own personalized way.”
So there you go — we are all likely smelling (and tasting) foods a bit differently, so don’t feel too badly the next time your dinner companion points out the cherry or leather notes in your wine and you have no idea what they are talking about. And maybe your almost irrational hatred of a certain food actually has a basis in your own unique perceptions.
Hey, that’s the excuse I’ll be using to avoid celery like the plague from now on.
Editor’s note: This story was originally written in June 2014 and has been updated with new information.
Why hating cilantro (and other flavors) may be genetic
Research suggests we don’t all experience taste and smell the same way.