Ask A Scientist: Supertastin.
“My boyfriend loves cilantro in salsa but I think it tastes like soap. What’s up with that?” -Amber M Coral Springs, FL
Don’t take this wrong, Amber…but you might be a supertaster. I know what you’re thinking: What the hell? Well, the thing is, there is a lot about individual taste preferences that scientists just don’t know. We can say, in general, food preferences boil down to two major factors: Food chemistry, and the biology of taste and smell.
Food chemistry varies greatly from food to food and is usually pretty complicated because every food is made up of a mixture of natural chemicals that give each its own particular flavor profile. The biology of taste has to do with the way those chemicals are detected by receptors in your mouth and nose. Because different peoples’ receptors vary, the same mix of chemicals may have a different taste profile from one person to another. Sometimes these differences are linked to genetic differences, as is the case with certain people called supertasters who can taste a wide range of chemicals most people can’t. However, often it’s just a matter of familiarity.
As with any other food, cilantro’s distinctive taste profile is shaped by a mixture of chemicals. For any given person, some of these chemicals are likely to be perceived as pleasant, while others may be perceived as unpleasant, while still others are not tasted at all. Clearly for you, one or more of these chemicals is not pleasant while for your boyfriend, the unpleasant chemicals are either not noticeable, or are perceived as pleasant. There are so many variables possible that I can’t tell you for certain why that is–unless you wish to subject yourself to an extensive battery of biochemical tests! One thing I can say is, at least for some people, the culprit seems to be a group of chemicals called unsaturated aldehydes, which tend to trigger sensors nose, rather than those in the mouth. Interestingly enough, unsaturated aldehydes are also found in soaps.
I have to say, this question hit close to home. The first time I had home made salsa, heavy on the cilantro, my mother and I both overwhelmingly experienced the icky soapy flavor. But my mother had a rule: You have to try everything, and you don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it, but you do have to try it again some other time because tastes change. And guess what? Now, I like cilantro. I can still sometimes detect the hint of Irish Spring, but the fresh savory flavor dominates for me, although I don’t think my mother has gotten over it to this day.
Also to note, Supertasting may be passed down through your family. Like my mother and I, you may have other members of your family that might just be genetically predisposed to greater sensitivity of those chemicals. Whether you can get over it or not, like I did, I can’t say. The only way to find out is to do what I did, and if at first it tastes icky, try it again, maybe with a clothes pin on your nose.
So are you destined to be eating soapy tasting salsa? Perhaps not. Another thing you can do is to chop the cilantro finely and let it rest a while before using it. This gives those unsaturated aldehydes a chance to break down and dissipate. Then perhaps everyone at your table can be happy with their condiments.
-Nathan McKnight, Science Educator