In The News: The Cilantro Controversy

| 5/27/2010 4:24:00 PM

K.LongofonoCilantro. Love it or hate it, everyone has something to say.

There are many strong opinions about Coriandrum sativum. While some people can’t get enough of its bold appeal, others say it tastes like soap, burned rubber or even feet. In general, cilantro-haters all agree to find the taste overwhelming and extremely unpleasant.

Some have tied this aversion to genetics, citing experiments performed in the last ten years. Unfortunately, there simply has not been enough research to make any definitive conclusions—there have only been a handful of studies done. In 2003 to 2004, Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia performed a series of “twins tests” at the Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Wysocki found that identical twins are more likely to have similar opinions on cilantro than fraternal twins.

Cilantro. Love it or hate it, everyone has something to say.
Photo by Island Vittles/Courtesy Flickr

Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist studying the brain’s perception of smell at Northwestern University, offers a slightly different interpretation. From his work, he has hypothesized that the reaction to cilantro stems from instinctual reasons. In order to avoid threatening or poisonous food, humans would assess a food by smell and/or taste instantly; in the case of cilantro, it held for some a bitter, unpleasant taste, causing them to reject it. This intense, negative reaction created a pattern in the brain, prompting those persons to avoid cilantro in the future. Gottfried asserts that this method of forming positive- or negative-based brain patterns about food has persisted to this day, affecting our various taste preferences.

This helps explain, in turn, those strange creatures that have crossed sides: former cilantro-haters who have buried their aversion and embraced cilantro. Gottfried, himself, explains how he overcame a dislike for cilantro by learning to associate the herb with tasty dishes and pleasant family interactions. So there is still hope, then, for all you soap-scoffing folks out there.

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