The mysterious case of the soap-flavored cilantro

This post is also available in Dutch.

Some people love cilantro: it really brings a dish together! But others are convinced the herb tastes like soap. There’s no accounting for taste of course, but what’s going on with these soap-tasters?

As a finishing touch a chef may sprinkle some cilantro over his pumpkin soup. However, this seemingly innocent act may have serious, perhaps unexpected consequences. Some people will now perceive the entire bowl of soup to taste like soap! The chef meanwhile thinks it tastes delicious. Clearly, people vary greatly in the way they experience the flavor of cilantro (also known as coriander).


Soapy cilantro? Image by Annelies (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Soap in your genes
Some of this variation is genetic. Large-scale population research has shown that about 3% of people in the Middle East and about 20% of people the West associate cilantro with a soap-like taste. Studies using twins have shown that this trait is 52% determined by your DNA.
One of the genes responsible for the soapy taste belongs to an olfactory nerve in your nose. This olfactory nerve is sensitive to a fatty substance (an ‘aldehyde’) that is present in both cilantro and lotion. So for some of us cilantro and soap really do have a similar flavor! But not everyone with this gene has the same experience. Why is that?

A stick-in-the-mud will try nothing new
We’re always cautious when eating something new. This makes sense if you consider our history: in prehistoric times food wasn’t always safe! As a result, when you first taste a new flavor that also occurs in dangerous food, you will experience this flavor very intensely. In these situations it’s not important to taste something very well, you just need to get that bad food out of your mouth! This is why children experience lemons as very sour, a cup of coffee as very bitter and bold red peppers as very spicy. In the same way, soap tasters will initially experience cilantro as very soapy.

Nonetheless, soap tasters can get used to cilantro in the same way children get used to coffee as they get older. After a while soap tasters will be able to enjoy the other flavors in dishes that also contain cilantro. They will recognize the flavor as soap-like, but it won’t be as overpowering anymore.
Knowing this, it makes sense that in countries where cilantro is a very popular herb there are way fewer people who complain of its soapy taste.

In short, eating cilantro is just like drinking coffee: you learn to appreciate it over time. But how difficult this is will depend on your cilantro genes. After all, slowly learning to appreciate the taste of soap… well, have fun with that one.

This blog was written by Annelies. Edited by Jeroen.

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