Hate cilantro? Blame your brain


Want to wind up a crowd with a polarizing topic? No need to bust out universal health care or Michele Bachmann. Instead, mention the seemingly harmless herb cilantro and you'll have yourself a throwdown.

People have violent love or hate reactions to cilantro, and a recent New York Times article claims those in the anti-cilantro camp can blame their brain for the phobia. The herb's haters often say the plant has a soapy or lotiony taste, which the article's expert, neuroscientist Jay Gottfried, explains as follows:

The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn't fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.

It doesn't help that flavor chemists have found cilantro's aroma is created by modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes, which are often found in--wait for it--soaps and lotions. Luckily the article states that instead of flinging the hated green to the floor (that tends to be frowned on in restaurants), anti-cilantroites can learn to love the herb by associating it with positive food experiences, or more realistically by crushing the leaves to keep the aldehydes from overpowering it.

So has anyone gone from Team Anti-Cilantro to Team Cilantro? Do such converts actually exist?