The topic of cilantro has become somewhat popular and heated in the past several years. For most people it is like a more flavorful and floral variety of parsley and a welcome accompaniment to Mexican, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine (just to name a few). For 4-14% of the population, however, it quickly transforms a delicious meal into a soapy nightmare. Why? According to every source online, including NPR, Huffington Post, and a web science show called “Sci Show” , this olfactory phenomena is due to genetics.
“How cilantro tastes to you has a lot to do with your genes,” says SciShow’s Hank Green. He explains that after conducting a few separate studies, scientists were able to pin down most cilantro haters as people with a shared group of olfactory-receptor genes, called OR6A2, that pick up on the smell of aldehyde chemicals. Aldehyde chemicals are found in both cilantro and soap. Uh, yummy?”
A study of 30,000 participants were surveyed and while it was true that there were two different genes that could contribute to the ‘soapiness’, 11.5% of participants surveyed who did not possess either gene still experienced a soapy taste. 11.5% is pretty high on the 4-14% scale. Perhaps it is just me, but it seems that they are no closer to discovering the cause after this survey was completed as they were beforehand. Rather than finding a genetic cause, they ruled it out as a factor. This is a prime example of using unsupportive scientific data to back up a preferred result.
So what could it be? In the last 30 seconds of the video presented by Sci Show, they mentioned that ‘bitter’ detecting components of our olfactory senses may be responsible, but that didn’t know how. The science of scent and our olfactory senses still largely remain a mystery. There is a great book on the topic called “The Secret of Scent” by Luca Turin, that goes into depth on the subject.
One thing we do know about our ability to taste bitter things (and any other flavor for that matter) is that our palate is able to shift and acclimate based on the things we tend to eat. Someone who rarely eats bitter foods may find a strong distaste for even the mildest arugula, where as someone who has oriented their palate towards bitter foods can happily snack on extremely bitter foods such as dandelion greens. When we have enough bitter foods in our diets, our bodies experiences a change in digestive ph towards alkalinity. When our digestive system is more alkaline, harmful microbes such as candida die off and beneficial microbes are able to thrive. Microorganisms are responsible for producing many of the digestive enzymes that break down our food. After all- microbes eat and digest our food first and our nutrients come from their waste. Digestive microbes will produce the digestive enzymes needed to break down their preferred food. These enzymes are present at all stages of digestion, including our saliva. That is how we are able to orient towards bitter.
How does this pertain to cilantro?
I have never enjoyed the taste of cilantro. The first time I had it, I remember thinking that the bowl which held my salsa had not been sufficiently rinsed of soap. I tossed the salsa, cleaned and rinsed the dish, refilled it only to find that it was the salsa that tasted like soap. In a different article published by Huffington Post it was proposed that it was possible to orient your palate to disregard the soapy taste through repeated exposure and positive vibes in regards to the herb. Personally, I wasn’t able to achieve such a feat, despite an almost obsessive drive to get there. Then about 3 months ago, I started taking a capsulated probiotic that contains saccharomyces boulardii. Saccharomyces Boulardii is a beneficial fungal microbe that comes from soil that has been shown to support the normal barrier function of the intestinal epithelium. I discovered that it also had another feature; about a week into taking one every morning, I mistook cilantro for parsley, discovering a bright floral taste I had never experienced before. Somehow, I was able to enjoy cilantro. I, of course, did some research and was not able to find anything to explain it. The standard ‘scientific’ genetic explanation wasn’t holding up, but perhaps with the aided perspective of epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of environmental factors influencing our genetic coding. These environmental factors can include anything we experience with our bodies as well as our belief systems. The studies conducted within the field of Epigenetics has shown that genetic predisposition to things such as cancer and other diseases assumed to be largely hereditary are actually far more environmentally related, including the belief that a specific gene within your makeup causes cancer.
So, could the introduction of a new form of beneficial microbe be the environmental factor that facilitates change in the genetic make up of an individual (such as myself) who’s predisposed to the detection of a soapy taste in cilantro? I think not.
About 3 weeks ago I experienced a tooth infection. I was prescribed the gnarly antibiotic called Clindamycin. Although I took it with plenty of standard probiotics, I didnt have any saccharomyces boulardii capsules available. Two days into my round of antibiotic treatment I had the opportunity to eat some cilantro and sure enough, it was back to tasting strongly like soap. My friend gave me one dozen saccharomyces boulardii capsules and I took them all over the course of three days. I tried the cilantro again and to my surprise, it already tasted good again. Unless there was a genetic flip that was happening in correlation with the presence of saccharomyces boulardii, it is very unlikely that genetics have anything to do with the great cilantro soap mystery.
My theory on what is really happening:
If you’re one of the 4-14% of us out there who have experienced the dish soapy taste of cilantro, perhaps, like me, you have done some self experimentation on whether its awful in all forms. Typically served raw as a garnish, cilantro is at its soapiest. Cooked, it is a whole different story. It is ‘common knowledge’ amongst raw food enthusiasts that cooking food can destroy beneficial enzymes and strip foods of their nutrients; however, when certain foods, such as kale, are cooked properly (by that I mean in a manner that seeks to maintain the nutritional content of food) our bodies gain access to nutrients that were protected from our digestive system by tough cell walls. Other foods, such as cilantro have weaker cell walls that are able to be broken down by digestive enzymes, and are more beneficial when eaten raw. While some foods, such as papaya and pineapple are rich with digestion supportive enzymes, most foods are reliant on the enzymes produced by digestive microbes. Perhaps the presence of saccharomyces boulardii in the digestive system provides our saliva with the necessary enzyme to break the cell walls within cilantro, creating a palatable flavor. Those without the necessary enzyme, experience the soapy taste of cilantro’s cell walls.
Its amazing how little medical science understands about the role of micro organisms within the human body. I believe that the great cilantro soap mystery is indication of just that. Its not impossible that genetics play some sort of role; however, I think we need a shift from the assumption of nature taking precedent over nurture through the study of Epigenetics as well as a closer look into the role of the micro biome we inherit at birth and it’s progression and development in relationship to our physical and mental health.