Last Wednesday I began the last unit of Materia Medica for 2016. Over the course of three Wednesdays I share in-depth herbal information on fifteen herbs, five each evening. On September 7 we started the first five herbs/mushrooms: chaga, cilantro-coriander, figwort, ligustrum, and marshmallow. It is a diverse bunch, randomly delivered by a computer algorithm, and the medicine among them is equally diverse. I will speak some about one of these herbs, not only because of its versatility in medicinal and culinary arenas, but also because of its notoriety among laypeople and herbalists alike.  

The Lowdown Behind the Cilantro Vs. Coriander Controversy

First, before we get into the whole cilantro vs. coriander thing, it would be wise to inform the innocent reader that they are indeed the same plant. Coriandrum sativum is the scientific name. Coriander is the more ‘official’ name, and the seed/spice/medicine is called the same. Cilantro  is the name we use when referring to the leaf. As it resembles flat leaf parsley, it is sometimes also called Chinese parsley. It is a plant packed with flavor and medicine (it is loaded with essential oils/terpenes).

Plants loaded with constituents from this aromatic family are likely to be antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, carminative and stimulating to circulation. This is true not only for coriander seed and leaf, but also for the root. All parts are used in medicine and cooking throughout Asia. Coriander seed is a mainstay in curry and garam masala blends, adding a complex nutty, lemony flavor. The leaf is a common ingredient in soups and stir-fry. Halfway around the world coriander is a favorite in Mexico, the seed showing up in complex sauces, the leaf in salsa, gazpacho, and guacamole recipes. Which leads us to the first controversy, and also disbanding with the whole cilantro vs. coriander hype and focusing on the real issues.

Controversy One: Cilantro and Taste Buds: People have strong feelings when it comes to the taste of cilantro. You either love it or despise it. For the haters, the leaf smells and tastes like bad soap. This is not an opinion. Research studies traced the distaste to genes controlling smell receptor sites. For 4-14% of the world population, the leaf indeed tastes horribly soapy. I did a cursory search on the internet to see if this distaste extended to coriander seed, but was unable to find a definitive answer. I do know many people that cannot stomach cilantro, but are perfectly okay eating curry. Coriander is also a common ingredient in Belgian witbiers and German hefeweizens, and I personally know of a few cilantro-phobes who are big fans of those beers. So, the case is not cut and dry.

Controversy Two: Cilantro and Chelation: Coriandrum sativum as medicine is well documented, but most of these qualities are attributed to the seed, not the leaf. The seed has beneficial effect on the digestive system, cutting though stagnancy, stimulating secretion of digestive juices, and simultaneously increasing digestive power while alleviating excess stomach acid production. It also has strong antimicrobial properties, being useful against food poisoning (salmonella), oral thrush (candida), respiratory and allergy ailments, and UTIs. It is also used in Ayurveda for the treatment of diabetes.

While these uses are millennia old and accepted, the leaf’s alleged ability to pull out (chelate) heavy metals — in particular, mercury — is as contemporary a claim as it gets. I believe this alleged use can be traced to a single report. Nonetheless, the rumor was compelling enough to warrant scientific study. I am not the best or most exhaustive researcher, so I am not 100% certain of the accuracy or legitimacy of my searches. A couple of the studies seemed credible enough, and what they had to say was. . .  well. . . inconclusive. Which is to say that cilantro leaf as a mercury chelating agent is as likely to be effective as it is to be ineffective. One study reported that cilantro did dredge deeply sequestered mercury from intercellular spaces, but did not effectively eliminate it from the body, leading to the reabsorption and relocation of mercury. The study concluded that if cilantro is to be used, then another pulling-transport agent would be necessary to complete the job. Every site I found pointed to chlorella — a type of blue-green algae — as the best agent for this job.

In this day of misinformation, I am naturally skeptical, especially when so much of the internet is devoted to sales hype. For all I know these sites are carefully hidden promoters of chlorella products. I do know that chelation of toxic substances is tricky business, so I would be super reluctant to create a DIY, seat-of-your-pants cilantro-chlorella chelation protocol without a lot more assurances. I am, on the other hand, a strong advocate for ages-old herbal wisdom, so, in the meantime, while the dust continues to settle on the cilantro-mercury chelation controversy, I will continue to use the seed for its tried-and-true virtues in both medicine and food. And as I am one the fortunate 86-96% humans that does not have the ‘soapy’ gene, I will continue to enjoy cilantro in my dips and soups.

Materia Medica Class at Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine: If this interests you and you would like to know more detailed information about herbal medicines and lore (like the cilantro vs. coriander controversy) I’ll be covering ten more herbs over the next two Wednesdays. The next five up for September 14  are blueberry, butternut, teasel, white peony, and wood betony. Consider signing up for the remaining classes.

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