And while plucking it off your every bowl of pho feels like a dreadful curse given how much yum you know cilantro should bring, Inna A. Husain, MD, the medical director of laryngology at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana, says it may have a silver lining...depending on how you look at it.
According to Dr. Husain, having a distaste for cilantro does not necessarily a picky eater make. Rather, it has everything to do with your genetic composition. "Some folks simply have a different genetic makeup that makes them perceive the flavor of cilantro—and other ingredients—as soapy," she says. What's more, this may be indicative of being a “supertaster,” or someone whose sense of taste is more intense than average.
- Inna Husain, MD, otolaryngologist affiliated with Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana
Why cilantro tastes like soap for some folks
From a scientific standpoint, being a supertaster (or smeller) is correlated with having more taste and smell receptors than the majority of people, which means being able to more easily detect specific compounds found in foods like cilantro.
“Included in these additional taste receptors can be some for detecting the compounds phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and propylthiouracil (PROP), which are often found in broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts. We don’t know if cilantro contains these for a fact, but it’s highly suspected,” Dr. Husain says. Studies show the two compounds, PTC and PROP, are generally perceived as either tasteless or bitter.
Supertasters tend to perceive bitterness more than others
The term “supertaster” was coined by the experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, PhD in the 1980s, who studied genetic variation in taste perception. In truth, whether or not you’re a supertaster all boils down to one gene: TAS2R38, aka taste receptor 2 member 38, a protein-coupled receptor. “The gene TAS2R38 is often called the supertaster gene as it allows for the ability to taste PTC and PROP,” Dr. Husain explains.
BTW: You don’t need to undergo extensive testing to find out whether or not you’re a suspected supertaster. In fact, an at home test is all you need. “Tests for sale on Amazon, like this one, are coated with PTC. The idea is if you can taste or detect the PTC on the strip, you would have the TAS2R38 gene, and therefore would be considered a supertaster,” Dr. Husain says.
The concept is simple: the PTC dissolves on the tongue and activates the PTC receptor, that is, if it’s present. “But, if you don’t have the gene, in turn, you won’t have the PTC receptor, which means that you shouldn’t taste much of anything when you place the strip on your tongue.”
The bottom line
Remember if you have the TAS2R38 gene, you have the ability to taste PTC and PROP, otherwise you can detect bitterness more than others. In other words, if cilantro tastes like soap for you, you likely fall into the super-tasting category and/or possibly the super-smelling category. “We don’t quite know if it's the taste that is being activated or if it’s the activation of olfactory receptors via the food’s aroma—or maybe it’s both for those with an aversion to cilantro.” Either way, a bitterness test can help you come one step closer to figuring out where you and cilantro stand.
What’s more, Dr. Husain says that instead of solely suspecting supertasting abilities, “Bartoshuk’s work gave a genetic basis and reasoning for it.” In other words, your aversion to cilantro isn't all in your head—rather it’s all in your taste buds. Not to mention, you may have actually been a supertaster all along.
In case you do enjoy cilantro, this easy chickpea goddess dressing will do the trick:
- Guo, S W, and D R Reed. “The genetics of phenylthiocarbamide perception.” Annals of human biology vol. 28,2 (2001): 111-42. doi:10.1080/03014460151056310
- Tepper, Beverly J et al. “Genetic sensitivity to the bitter taste of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) and its association with physiological mechanisms controlling body mass index (BMI).” Nutrients vol. 6,9 3363-81. 27 Aug. 2014, doi:10.3390/nu6093363
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