Saturday, March 6, 2010
Cilantro and the experience of taste
Ever notice a strong divide among cilantro lovers and haters? Sure, all foods are enjoyed by some and loathed by others, but when it comes to cilantro, the divide seems to be more pronounced. There may be a scientific explanation for this. Research suggests that people can experience taste drastically differently depending on their taste buds. Those in the cilantro-hating camp report that, to them, cilantro tastes something like lemony, soapy dishwater, and they avoid the herb at all costs.
Reporter Josh Kurz, a cilantro hater, sought to get to the bottom of the issue using a Gas Chromatograph, a machine that slowly heats up whatever is placed inside it, in this case, cilantro. Different chemical compounds in the cilantro evaporate at different temperatures, and with the machine, Kurz was able to identify just what it is about cilantro that he – and millions of others around the globe – finds so noxious.
Kurz took part in the experiment along with a couple cilantro lovers. When unsaturated aldahydes were evaporated, Kurz identified them as the root of his cilantro hatred; the cilantro lovers, however, smelled nothing. Shortly thereafter, the two cilantro lovers identified the unique aroma that draws them to the herb, and Kurz – you guessed it – smelled nothing.
In the cilantro example above, Kurz displayed the traits of what he refers to as a supersmeller. Related to this is a group of people known as supertasters. These are people who perceive the taste of a certain chemical compound, phenylthiocarbamide (PCT) as very bitter, while the rest of us perceive it as tasteless. Supertasters also have significantly more taste buds than the non-PCT sensitive (“non-taster”) tongue.
While PCT itself is not found in food, related chemicals are, and it is hypothesized that PCT sensitivity plays a role in determining food choices. PCT tasters tend not to like broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables with PCT-like compounds, and may thus consume fewer servings of vegetables and more sweets and fats than non-tasters. Their overall high acuity for taste may cause them to eat less of a variety of foods. Overall, supertasters have been shown to have a marginally higher risk of diabetes and heart attack than non-tasters. On the bright side, being a supertaster appears to be protective against cigarette smoking, as supertasters are more sensitive to the negative taste of cigarettes. Genetic differences among people in the perception of sweet flavors have also been found.
An excuse for picky eaters?
Being a supersmeller or supertaster may explain why some people are picky eaters and some are not. So, picky eaters, rejoice. Next time someone gives you a hard time about your selective food choices, explain to them that you might simply perceive the taste of food differently than others, and may be more sensitive to taste than most people. If you think you might be a supertaster (or just plain don’t like many vegetables), try to find a variety of vegetables that you do enjoy, and try to increase your vegetable consumption. For the rest of us, keep your dinner guests in mind when choosing to serve a dish that contains cilantro. You don’t want to offend any supersmellers by serving them a dish that tastes like lemony, soapy dishwater.
Readers, what do you think? What are your own experiences with cilantro, or the perception of taste in general?