When it comes to food, everyone has likes and dislikes. Chocolate generally gets favourable comments, spinach less so. But no flavour seems to elicit the degree of polarizing comments as that of cilantro.
The seeds of the cilantro plant are known as coriander and are even mentioned in the book of Exodus. Archeologists found some in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, perhaps placed there with hopes of adding some spice to the afterlife. The ancient Chinese believed there would be no need to worry about the afterlife if you consumed cilantro because the herb conferred immortality. Hippocrates used it as medicine and even today some people ascribe health benefits to the herb based on its content of antioxidants, anti-bacterial compounds and minerals. These, though, are not unique to cilantro, all plants contain varying quantities of these substances.
Another supposed benefit is cilantro’s ability to chelate heavy metals. The term “chelate” comes from the Greek meaning “claw” and refers to compounds that have the ability to remove harmful metal ions from solution by gripping them like a claw. Some bloggers even push cilantro as an ingredient in a “detox” salad, claiming it rids the body of heavy metals. As usual, there is a kernel of truth to the claim, but that kernel is inflated with nonsense until it pops.
A few studies have shown that cilantro leaves can produce a chelating effect in water spiked with heavy metals and that cilantro can reduce absorption of lead when food tainted with it is fed to mice. But these effects are light years from a salad with cilantro accomplishing any sort of heavy metal “detoxing” in people. Such a claim would require a demonstration of there being a heavy metal problem in the first place and its reduction with cilantro. A PubMed search for “cilantro detox” yields zero entries. Similarly, there is no basis to some food faddists’ claim that “cilantro can reduce water weight, is a cancer fighter and can improve memory with its brain protecting vitamins and minerals.”
While the scientific literature provides no evidence for health benefits, it does provide clues when it comes to cilantro’s polarizing flavour. What we refer to as flavour is the sensation triggered when molecules in food encounter receptors on our taste buds and in our nasal passage. Indeed, scent is an integral part of the sensation as evidenced by cilantro haters not being bothered if they consume the herb while holding their nose.
Some forty compounds have been isolated from cilantro including a number in the aldehyde family that are mainly responsible for the aroma and taste. The composition of the seeds is somewhat different, having linalool, also found in lavender and cannabis, as a major component. It has a pleasant floral scent accounting for its use in cleaning agents, detergents and shampoos. When inhaled it can reduce stress. At least in lab rats. Rats that inhaled linalool saw a reduction in the elevated levels of white blood cells induced by stress.
It is the aldehydes in cilantro that cause some people to liken the scent to soaps and lotions because these compounds are indeed found in those products. But why only some people? One theory is that the cilantrophobes are “supertasters” and can taste compounds that others can’t. Supertasters do exist, but they react to very specific bitter compounds such as propylthiouracil, while most people taste nothing. However, there are no such compounds in cilantro and “supertasters” are no more likely to be cilantro haters than anyone else.
It seems, though, that people who abhor cilantro may have some sort of genetic connection. Taking advantage of the annual twins festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, Dr. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, had identical and fraternal twins rate the scent of chopped cilantro. There were definitely lovers and haters, with identical twins almost always agreeing with their sibling, while with fraternal twins this was not the case. Experiments at Monell have also separated the components of cilantro using gas chromatography and showed that while everyone can smell the “soapy” aldehydes, cilantro haters cannot smell the compounds that make the herb so attractive to its fans.
Interestingly, there is also an ethnocultural connection. A study at the University of Toronto surveyed 1639 young adults and had them rate their preference for cilantro on a 9 point scale. East Asians were the most likely to dislike cilantro with roughly 21% expressing their distaste. Caucasians were not far behind at 17%. Only 14% of those of African descent disliked the taste, followed by South Asians at 7%, Hispanics at 4% and Middle Eastern subjects at 3%. These stats roughly parallel the use of cilantro in the cuisine of these areas suggesting that there is a connection between liking cilantro and frequency of exposure.
While cilantro’s enemies would rather stick rusty needles into their eyeballs than eat the fresh herb, they normally don’t object to cilantro in cooked foods such as pesto. That’s because the herb’s flavour changes as the volatile aldehydes escape into the air when it is crushed, cooked or pureed. Cilantro fans of course crave fresh cilantro and when cooking add the herb at the end stage. As for me, I’m with Julia Child on this one. Back in 2002 she told Larry King in an interview that if she found cilantro in a dish she was served she would pick it out and throw it on the floor. I recognize, though, that there are people who would jump to catch it before it hit the ground because they just love the smell and taste of this herb that has pleased some and irritated others since biblical times.
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