You probably take your tongue for granted, or at least, don’t fully grasp the complexities of how it deciphers the flavors it encounters and sends those delicious or distasteful signals to your brain.
This is all the more important because things don’t always taste the same to different people. In fact, when it comes to the herb cilantro, the fresh earthiness you taste might actually taste like Palmolive or a fragrant bar of bathroom soap to someone else. There is a lot to wade through when it comes to common myths about food, but the idea that to some people, cilantro tastes like soap is no outlandish rumor.
Why cilantro tastes like soap to some people
Whether you taste a mouthful of antiseptic when you chomp into a bite of cilantro-rich salsa comes down to a roll of the genetic dice. Specifically, it come down to the aldehydes—organic compounds in which a carbon atom shares a bond with another atom or group of atoms, per Britannica— found in cilantro, which are often used in various perfumes and cleaning products, owing to their pronounced fragrances.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the aldehydes are best detected through the olfactory receptors, which allow you to smell things. The organization notes:
The difference may be small at the molecular level, but has large implications at the olfactory (smell) level. It’s suspected that a dislike for cilantro is largely driven by the smell (and smell is directly linked to how we taste.)
Whether you taste delicious herbs or something soapy is contingent upon your genetics. In a study the Cleveland Clinic points to, 14,000 respondents were tested for genetic peculiarities that might indicate why some people find cilantro soapy and others don’t. About 10 percent of those who did displayed a preponderance of the olfactory receptor gene OR6A2, “which has a high binding specificity for several of the aldehydes that give cilantro its characteristic odor,” the authors wrote in the 2012 study, published in the Flavour Journal.
Your ethnic background is a factor
The 2012 study stands as the official scientific consensus on the polarizing herb that is cilantro. And even though it’s only one study, it revealed interesting insights into why some cultures and ethnic backgrounds seem to share a dislike of cilantro.
According to the research, various ethnic groups surveyed didn’t necessarily uniformly report tasting soapiness, but there was a clear correlation between aversion to cilantro and ethnicity. (Women were also more likely to report tasting soap when consuming the herb).
As Nature wrote in 2012:
21% of east Asians, 17% of people of European ancestry and 14% of people of African descent say they dislike the stuff … by contrast, 3–7% of south Asians, Latin Americans and Middle Eastern subjects disapproved of the herb, which is more common in their native cuisines.
One might infer that these preferences naturally correlate with the use of cilantro and coriander—seeds that eventually sprout into cilantro—in various world cuisines. Cultures that use them more have a smaller percentage of people who taste soapiness, and vice versa.
The key takeaway? It isn’t really a matter of preference. Cilantro does actually taste like soap to some people. Instead of ridiculing them, we can sympathize with their plight: that they will never know the true pleasure of properly made guacamole.