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Do you hate cilantro? Why this leafy green herb is so divisive

If you can't stand cilantro, you're definitely not alone.
TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Are you someone who can't stand the taste of cilantro?

The zesty herb that tops everything from tacos to Pad Thai has a fragrant flavor most folks enjoy when paired with the right foods. There are plenty of people, however, who loathe the taste and find themselves gagging at the mere thought of ingesting it — and they're actually in pretty good company.

Some of the culinary greats, including Julia Child and Ina Garten, can't stand cilantro.

But have you ever wondered why cilantro tastes like heaven to some and a soapy mess to others? It all comes down to genetics.

If cilantro smells or tastes like soap, it could be because you're genetically made up to detect a certain chemical.Getty Images

People are born with varying ranges of olfactory abilities — the lowest category being anosmia (the inability to smell anything) and the highest, hyperosmia: a heightened sense of smell that makes different odors more acute. Whether your sense of smell is muted or extreme is genetic.

Scent, according to Gail Vance Civille, president and owner of Sensory Spectrum, a management consulting firm that specializes in consumer experiences, is one of the primary ways people detect and distinguish the detailed properties of foods.

"There are genetic and physical differences among people," Civille, a chemist with 50 years of experience in smelling, tasting and training individuals about the nuances of flavor, told TODAY. "I will also tell you the primary chemical that makes (cilantro) tastes like cilantro is citronellol, which is also the number one fragrance in Ivory soap."

In 2012, researchers at Cornell University conducted a study with almost 30,000 people and found that there was one specific gene that makes some people strongly dislike the taste of cilantro. OR6A2, an olfactory receptor, “codes for the receptor that picks up the scent of aldehyde chemicals” — these are chemicals found in both cilantro and soap.

"I know people love it (cilantro), and you can add it to the recipe," Garten told Vice's Munchies Podcast a few years ago. "I just hate it. To me it's so strong — and it actually tastes like soap to me — but it's so strong it overpowers every other flavor."

However, if individuals think cilantro smells or tastes like soap, all is not lost.

According to Civille, this trait might be an indicator that they actually have a heightened sense of smell because their brain recognizes that very particular aldehyde chemical.

So how common is it to hate cilantro? According to one study, it can vary widely depending on your ethnic background, but the answer lies somewhere between 4-21% of the population.

While those who hate cilantro may never truly be able to appreciate its refreshing properties without feeling like they've just consumed a bar of soap, there may actually be a bright side to this hypersensitivity.

Being a professional food tester may sound like a pretty easy dream job, but it actually requires a fine sense of smell that not everyone has. Someone born with the genetic code that makes them sensitive to the odor of citronellol may make them ideal candidates to become supertasters — people with extraordinarily sensitive taste buds and a heightened sense of smell.

However, to make it in Civille's field (which includes panels of people who taste and record the various sensory notes found in coffees, wines, meats, cheeses, chocolates and more), candidates have to prove they have the tasting chops to identify more than just the connection between cilantro and Ivory soap.

However, to be able to go pro — that is, fine-tuning your genetically elevated olfactory sense to be able to make big bucks in the world of sensory testing — cilantro haters will have to put their skills to additional tests.

When Civille is looking for potential team members, she typically gives them 10 jars with fragrance strips for different items (like cinnamon) and evaluates their descriptions, for example some people might report notes of brown spice, sappy cassia oil or even name a certain chemical that's produced for cinnamon flavor, like in Red Hots. New hires typically need to get nine out of 10 correct on the test.

If you want to try this out at home, Civille advises lining up a bunch of different dried herbs and spices, turning the labels away from you and blind smelling each one. Acing this mini test plus having an aversion to cilantro might equal hyperosmia.

At Sensory Spectrum, new panelists start out making $15 to $18 per hour during training, and receive $20 to $25 per hour afterwards. Consultants who visit clients and can name everything in a new product, often during its development phase, can make between $50,000 and $100,000 as they gain more expertise and confidence. And should that hate for cilantro turn out to be a real love for the nuanced flavors of the food and beverage industry, you could make up to $120,000 a year, Civille told TODAY.

So next time you're out for Taco Tuesday and notice some Ivory soap wafting through the restaurant, put yourself to the test. It might be time for a lucrative career change.