It’s close to summer, which means one thing in my house: fresh guacamole. It’s great because it’s easy. All you need is avocado, onion, salt, lime, and, of course, cilantro fresh from the garden. Now for some of you, that last ingredient might be a dealbreaker. You might be one of the many people for whom Cilantro is the worst herb on the planet.
I like cilantro, love it in fact, but there’s another food I hate the way some people hate cilantro: Grapefruit. In college the first time someone gave me a shot of vodka, they gave me grapefruit juice to chase it and I needed more vodka to wash the taste of that wretched filth out of my mouth. Luckily, the person that gave me the vodka was a bio major and it was at that party that I learned that the reason I hate grapefruit, and the reason some people hate cilantro is the same—it’s genetic.
The differences in our genes are what make us unique people. There are many genes that control taste in the human genome, 25 to be exact; add in the genes that control smell, and there’s a lot of room for variation. For these two foods, that means some people are more sensitive to their particular chemical makeup. Being able to taste those particular chemicals more strongly is no different than being able to roll your tongue.
For cilantro, the variation is actually in the olfactory genes. It makes those of you with the gene more adept at tasting (and smelling) aldehydes, a compound found in the cilantro plant. Those compounds are what make it taste “soapy” to you and that makes sense when you find out that aldehydes are used in everything from Formica to perfume, and yes, that includes formaldehyde. Interestingly, the “cilantro gene” is less common in people from cultures where cilantro is used in a lot of cuisines.
For grapefruit, it’s slightly different. The taste of grapefruit is very bitter, and so those who are more inclined to taste bitterness might be more sensitive, but there is a “point mutation” for some people of European ancestry, which makes grapefruit taste even more bitter. For me personally, it’s not just that grapefruit is bitter, it tastes like bile, but different strokes I guess.
Grapefruit, in general, is just weird, chemically, and contains compounds that alter and reduce our body’s ability to metabolize and breakdown medications. This is why you can’t consume grapefruit juice when you’re on, say, a cholesterol medication. This also affirms my belief that grapefruit is evil.
The really fascinating part is that scientists are still figuring out and studying why this happens, and tracking the different genetic variations, trying to pinpoint the exact gene responsible for why these food taste so bad. And who’s to say if these are the only such food preferences and states that are affected by our genes? It’s something science has only had the first taste of.
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