Contributor: Neha Vyas, MD, Family Medicine
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Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly cut herbs? However, there’s one aromatic leaf that can produce a distinctly negative reaction: coriandrum satvium, commonly known as cilantro.
Cilantro is one of the most polarizing herbs people use in modern cooking.
Around since the second millennium BCE, its fruits, leaves and stems have been used in many different cuisines, from Roman to Chinese, as well as modern-day Thai, Mexican and Indian food.
For some people, however, the aroma of cilantro elicits a strong negative reaction, like soap or dead bugs.
The power of aldehyde
It may surprise you to learn that those who dislike cilantro tend to have a gene that detects the aldehyde component of cilantro as a soapy smell.
Aldehydes are organic materials that possess a distinct chemical structure. The pairing of a carbon atom with an oxygen atom leaves room for two more bonds. If one of those bonds is with a hydrogen atom, it is called an aldehyde. If neither of the bonds is with hydrogen, it becomes a ketone.
The difference may be small at the molecular level but has large implications at the olfactory level. Think back to grade school science lab and formaldehyde and you can see why some people have such a negative reaction to aldehydes.
On the flip side, one of the most famous perfumes ever invented uses synthetic aldehydes in high volumes. Chanel No. 5, a very distinct and popular perfume, contains a number of synthetic aldehydes.
Blame it on your genes
Some people possess a gene that makes them very sensitive to the aldehyde component in cilantro. A 2012 study noticed a genetic link near the olfactory center of DNA in about 10 percent of those with cilantro aversion.
However, unlike fixed genetic variances such as eye color or hair color, cilantro preference can be changed by environmental factors. Some suggest that crushing the cilantro leaves before using it diminishes the soapy characteristic.
Over time, with new experiences and exposure, even cilantro-phobes can be converted. Sharing a pleasant meal with family and friends can change our brain perception of certain foods and allow us to update former negative associations.
Many health benefits
Cilantro has many attributes which make it worthwhile to overcome any aversions. Cilantro adds a lemony, bright flavor to dishes. Moreover, it offers health benefits:
- It is a natural potent antioxidant
- Its leaves contain a chemical called dodecanal that has a small antibacterial effect against salmonella
- It is a dietary source of iron, magnesium, and manganese
- It is a natural diuretic and can help battle nausea
Cilantro lovers everywhere know that it is a necessary ingredient in a variety of cuisines. No Tex-Mex salsa is complete without the aromatic cilantro leaf in its mix. The seeds of the cilantro plant, known as coriander, are a major ingredient in Indian dal.
Next time you’re in the grocery store; don’t forget to pick up the cilantro. Its bright lemony flavor will bring a distinctive flavor to your dinner table.