- Coriander is a special herb that affects people’s taste in different ways, and some people may perceive it as a soapy taste.
- Genetic factors can affect the taste perception of coriander, and especially the OR6A2 olfactory receptor gene plays a role in this perception.
- Research shows that coriander preference is inherited and can vary depending on ethnicity.
Coriander is a very special herb that can make people’s taste buds feel different. Famous chef Julia Child opposed this herb in 1955, claiming that coriander had a soapy taste, and this comparison continued for years. Worldwide, the proportion of people who dislike coriander varies between 3% and 21%. So, how can people perceive the same plant in such different ways?
It turns out that genetic factors play an important role in this different perception. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people react differently to the same food. However, similar reactions are often given to the same taste experience. For example, hot pepper is a classic example; Everyone feels pain, but only some people enjoy it.
Penn State University Food Science Professor and Sensory Expert John Hayes states that coriander is different in this regard. People perceive a fundamentally different experience or taste when they consume this plant. “No one knows exactly which genes play a role in coriander preference,” Hayes said, but a large observational study showed that a specific olfactory receptor gene, OR6A2, plays a role.
This study was conducted by DNA testing company 23andMe. The company looked at “a rough measure of the sensory phenotype, but across a broad population,” Hayes explained. The 23andMe team surveyed thousands of participants about their cilantro preferences and identified a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) associated with cilantro dislike. This SNP is located in a gene cluster that encodes olfactory receptors.
According to 23andMe, one of these genes codes for the OR6A2 receptor, which specifically binds to aldehydes that produce coriander’s signature scent.
“People aren’t exactly sure which volatile aromatic compound causes the soapy note in coriander,” said Charles Spence, gastrophysicist and Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. But the culprit may be organic compounds as well as aldehydes unique to coriander, which can have a pungent odor.
According to 23andMe’s findings, cilantro preference likely has a genetic component and varies by ethnicity. Approximately 13% of Southern and Northern European respondents find coriander soapy, while only 8% of East Asian respondents and 4% of South Asian respondents have an attitude towards coriander. Hayes explained that coriander’s more widespread use in South and East Asia means “cultures with a less soapy taste are more likely to accept it.”
Interestingly, there are records of people complaining about coriander in the 1500s and 1600s, Spence said. But “the way they define it has completely changed. “Before it was thought to taste soapy, coriander haters said the herb smelled like bedbugs.” said.
This change may have occurred at a time when previous generations may have encountered more bedbugs than today. Soap was becoming more synthetic during the period Julia Child mentioned, and new detergents contained different aldehydes than traditional soaps, perhaps more similar to those found in coriander, Spence said.
Aversion to other foods is also affected by genetic factors. For example, a genetic variation in the OR7D4 receptor makes some people more sensitive to the hormone androstenone, an unpleasant odor found in male pigs. Spence said that if androstenone was found in pork, those sensitive to pork odor would not find it very appetizing.
Regarding taste, Hayes noted that four or five of the 25 genes encoding bitter taste receptors in humans contain functional polymorphisms. So, he said, there are several mutations that change how some people experience bitter foods. The TAS2R38 gene determines those who tend to like bitter greens like kale or bitter beer, while TAS2R31 influences the preference for grapefruit juice and quinine in tonic water. “It can also predict whether you will like the taste of the sweetener saccharin,” Hayes said.
Compiled by: Ayça Ayaz