The Science of Cilantro: A Genetic Predisposition Toward Food Preference


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About a week ago one of my friends from freshman year posted a blog post from "23 and Me" on Facebook.  Having recognized the name of the website from SC 200 lecture, I clicked on my friend's status to see what it was about.  The nature of the post was a person's propensity to either like or dislike the taste of coriander, more commonly known as cilantro, based on their genetic makeup.  I felt like the topic was kind of random but since my family has a weird obsession with cilantro (we put it on everything!) I thought I'd read on.  

My friends thought I was weird for buying this Cilantro paste in a tube.  Personally, it's just something I crave.  
Photo courtesy of: http://www.gourmetgarden.com/media/view/2129/US-organic-tube-cilantro-lge.jpg

The blog post is based on a study conducted by various scientists and submitted the article for publication back in September 2012.  You can check out the synopsis of the study on the Cornell University Library's website and the 23andMe blog post here!



So 23andMe posed the question--"Do you like the taste of cilantro?"--to 50,000 people on their website. Their findings indicated that more people of European and Jewish descent detected a soapy-taste in the cilantro plant versus people of East Asian and South Asian descent (ex. 14.1% - Ashkenazi Jewish vs. 3.9% - South Asian).

When I initially saw the title, I thought it was kind of of a dumb topic as I attribute a person's like or dislike of cilantro based on what culture they grow up in.  Obviously certain cultures would be more prone to including it in their cuisine and others not.  My understanding is that people raised with cilantro as a part of their normal diet would be more likely to enjoy or at least tolerate the flavor because they were accustomed to it.  In my opinion, the above results seem to indicate this as well.

However, the 23andMe site recognized this but still wanted to see if there was any kind of genetic connection.   This is what they found:

  • People with the rs72921001 SNP genetic variation typically have a European background
  • The SNP is located near genes that are instrumental in helping our olactory receptors function properly (these receptors "detect chemicals in air and food" and help us to "recognize aromas and flavors")
  • We determine the "aromatic qualities" of cilantro based on a group of compounds known as aldehydes, which are detected by a a receptor known as OR6A2
  • The single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) associated with this study is found near genes that code for this receptor

So, in layman's terms, basically the genetic variation found in those of European descent is found close to genes that affect how one's brain interprets the smell and taste of things like cilantro and soap (many attribute the herb as having a "soapy taste").  The blog is quick to point out that genetics can play a role in how our olfactory receptors function in taste perception, but doesn't account for "a huge part of why our tastes for cilantro differ."

I began to wonder about other findings related to this topic.

A similar study, that I found out about on NPR, was conducted by the Monell Chemical Sense Center and found three genes in addition to the 23andMe study that affect how we perceive the plant's taste.  They found this after doing an experiment with over 500 sets of twins.  The article was published in the Oxford Journals' Chemical Senses section.

A NY Times article published in April 2010 cites findings by University of Otago (New Zealand) anthropologist Helen Leach that tie a dislike of cilantro with a cultural shift in Europe (and comparison to a "buggy" taste) that goes all the way back to the 1600s.  There seemed to be a desire to move away from the old flavors of medieval dishes, which included cilantro as an ingredient.  The aldehydes of many insects are the same or similar to that of cilantro, which is why the "buggy" attribution may make some sense.The same article discusses a Japanese study that indicated that crushing the leaves of the plant caused the enzymes in the leaves to change the plant's scent.  This changes the conversion of the aldehydes and, apparently, makes the flavor more tolerable to some people.

All in all, like the 23andMe study author Nicholas Eriksson says, genetics "didn't make a huge difference in...preference from person to person."  However, it seems to hard to ignore the findings of the various study that show the odor gene's contribution to our perception of the smell and therefore taste of the herb.  



1 Comment

It's so interesting that people are genetically predisposed to not like such a random think like cilantro. I decided to look into other foods we are predisposed to hate. I found this article which explains that there is an organic compound called phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) that tastes very bitter. Well, it’s very bitter to some people, it’s tasteless to others. About 70% of people have genetic traits that make them sensitive to the bitter taste of PTC, the rest of the population does not taste it. This compound is found in vegetables which is why people can't stand the taste
(source). I couldn't find the solid science behind this 70% claim. It seems too high to me. But being genetically predisposed to be sensitive to a compound is a good explanation for why we can't like certain foods.

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