Cilantro has been consumed by humans for thousands of years.
Learning how to use fresh herbs and spices like cilantro to flavor food can also help to cut down on sodium intake.
In this article, we will give a brief history of cilantro, describe its nutritional content, and discuss possible health benefits.
Contents of this article:
Here are some key points about cilantro. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- There is archaeological evidence that cilantro has been enjoyed for thousands of years.
- Cilantro contains chemicals that help foods stay fresher for longer.
- Its potential health benefits include anticancer effects and improvements in skin health.
- One-fourth of a cup of cilantro contains 5 percent of the daily value of vitamin A.
What is cilantro?
Cilantro is an annual herb from the family Apiaceae, which contains 3,700 species including carrots, celery, and parsley.
All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and dried seeds are most commonly used in cooking.
Often known in the United Kingdom as coriander, cilantro comes from the plant Coriandrum sativum.
In the United States, the leaves of the plant are referred to as cilantro (the Spanish translation) and the seeds are called coriander. Cilantro is also commonly known as Chinese parsley.
Cilantro has been a part of human cuisine for a long time. Dried traces of cilantro were found in a cave in Israel that dated to around 6,000 BC. Remnants have also been found in ancient Egypt, showing that its use was widespread even in ancient civilizations.
Moving forward a few thousand years, cilantro was brought to the early British colonies in North America in 1670, making it one of the first spices to be cultivated by the early settlers.
Possible health benefits of cilantro
Consuming plant-based foods of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions.
Some studies suggest that increasing consumption of plant foods like cilantro decreases the risk of obesity, overall mortality, diabetes, and heart disease while promoting healthy skin and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight.
A study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that some spices, including coriander, can prevent heterocyclic amine (HCA) from forming in meats during cooking.
The National Cancer Institute defines HCAs as chemicals formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. A high consumption of foods containing HCAs is associated with a higher risk of cancer.
A study published in the Journal of Food Science looked at the use of five Asian spices, including Coriandrum sativum (C. sativum), or coriander, in cooking meats. In the meats cooked with those spices, the formation of HCAs was significantly lower.
Pain and inflammation
There is a growing body of evidence that coriander may one day be useful as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug.
Coriander seeds may be used in anti-inflammatory medications.
"The aqueous and ethanolic extracts of C.sativum seeds demonstrated significant analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities."
"However, further evaluation is required for analysis of phytochemical constituents involved in these activities."
A similar study, published in 2015, investigated the analgesic properties of coriander in mice. They also found an analgesic effect associated with coriander extracts.
They noted that naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opioids, inhibited this reduction in pain. This, they conclude, could mean that coriander works via the opioid system.
As antioxidants, dietary carotenoids can decrease the risk of numerous conditions, including several cancers and eye disease.
A study published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition showed that basil and coriander contained the highest levels of the carotenoids beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, all known for their antioxidant properties.
A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2015 examined the ability of coriander leaf, or cilantro, extracts to protect skin against damage caused by Ultra Violet (UV) B radiation.
They tested an alcohol suspension of coriander on both human skin cells in a dish, and skin cells in hairless laboratory mice.
The results supported the potential of C. sativum to prevent skin photoaging.
Although there are a number of treatments for fungal infections, such oral candidiasis (thrush), they often cause unpleasant side effects. For this reason, there is interest in developing compounds based on natural ingredients that can fight fungal infections.
A study, published in PLOS One, tested coriander-based essential oil against Candida albicans. The authors conclude that the oil, produced from coriander leaves, does indeed have an antifungal property and recommend further studies.
Due to its high antioxidant content, oil extracted from the leaves of cilantro has been shown to inhibit unwanted oxidation when added to other foods, delaying or preventing spoilage.
A compound found in the leaves and seeds of cilantro - dodecanal - has also been found to have an antibacterial effect against Salmonella. In laboratory tests, dodecanal was twice as efficient at killing Salmonella than the commonly used medicinal antibiotic gentamicin.
"We were surprised that dodecanal was such a potent antibiotic. The study suggests that people should eat more salsa with their food, especially fresh salsa."
Isao Kubo, lead researcher
Cilantro has been found to suppress lead accumulation in rats, which gives promise for the use of cilantro to combat lead and other heavy metal toxicity. Because of its ability to chelate (bond chemicals together), cilantro is also being studied as a natural water purifier.
The antimicrobial and heavy metal chelation factors of cilantro have led to its recent use in many "detoxification" juices and drinks.
Nutritional breakdown of cilantro
One-fourth cup of cilantro (about 4 grams) contains:
- 1 calorie
- 0 grams of fat
- 0 grams of carbs
- 0 grams of protein
- 2 percent daily value of vitamin C
- 5 percent daily value of vitamin A
How to incorporate more cilantro into your diet
Adding cilantro is a great way to add flavor to a dish or beverage without adding extra calories, fat, or sodium.
Cilantro is a tender herb (along with mint and basil) which has gentle leaves that are best to add either raw or near the end of cooking in order to maintain their delicate flavor and texture.
Cilantro adds big flavor with very few calories.
Cilantro is relatively easy to grow and can thrive in small pots on a sunny windowsill.
When preparing cilantro, separate the leaves from the stems and only use the leaves. Use a sharp knife or herb shears and cut gently.
Cutting with a dull knife or over-chopping will bruise the herb, and much of the flavor will be misplaced onto the cutting board surface.
Cilantro pairs well with many dishes, especially Mexican or Thai dishes and those with beans, cheese, eggs, and fish. Cilantro is also great with creamy vegetable dips and as a topping or garnish for soups and salads.
Take a look at these healthful recipes using cilantro and experiment with cilantro in your own recipes at home:
- Cilantro-lime tuna burgers
- Healthy two-grain southwest salad
- One pot lentil lunch
- Black bean burgers with chipotle mango guacamole
- Spicy Thai lettuce wraps
- Creamy poblano avocado pasta
It is fine to use dried herbs and spices as well. One study from the UCLA School of Medicine reported that nine popular herbs and spices, including cilantro, dill, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, and parsley, were able to retain their antioxidant capacity during the drying process.
Possible health risks of consuming cilantro
Salmonella is a potential health risk when consuming coriander. In a study of more than 20,000 food shipments, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that 15 percent of coriander imports were contaminated with Salmonella. More than 80 percent of the U.S. spice supply is imported.
The testing for Salmonella was conducted at the time of import. At a retail level, the risk is less likely, particularly with large, more reputable spice companies. Heating food to 150 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit will kill bacteria, including Salmonella.
However, in 2015, the FDA published a recall of a brand of coriander spice that had the potential to contain Salmonella.
Coriander may be an allergen, and because it is often used in combination with spices, it is hard to detect.
According to dietitian Sherry Coleman Collins, "Coriander is in the family of spices that includes caraway, fennel, and celery, all of which have been implicated in allergic reactions in recent years."
People who tend to be sensitive to allergens should be aware of this when using coriander.
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.