National Geographic Daily News
Photo of "selfmade" human cheese.

Cheese can be made from many sources, including the bacteria of your belly button.

Photograph by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Chelsea Huang

National Geographic

Published November 27, 2013

Would you eat cheese made with bacteria from a belly button?

If so, you may be closer than ever to your dream dinner. Making news recently, biologist Christina Agapakis and scent expert Sissel Tolaas have extracted bacteria from the belly buttons, feet, mouths, and tears of artists, writers, and cheese makers to create 11 “human cheeses.”

The project, called Selfmade, was funded by Synthetic Aesthetics, which creates collaborations between biology, art, and design. After being displayed in October at the “Grow Your Own” exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, the initial reaction to the creation has been, unsurprisingly, utter repulsion.

But that’s the exact response the pair looks to question in order to begin a conversation about the environment in which we live.

“These cheeses are meant only as ‘food for thought,’ ” Agapakis said. “What we hope is that after the first visceral response of ‘ew,’ we can start to think more about the intersections of human and microbial cultures.”

“Culture” in two ways, that is.

“Cheese is a wonderful artifact with which to demonstrate how ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are not merely inseparable, but fully implicated in one another,” Heather Paxson, anthropologist and author of The Life of Cheese and toe bacteria donor, said.

While foodie thrill seekers won’t be able to get their taste buds on these particular human cheeses, unusual—and initially repulsive—ones exist for enjoyment in cultures around the world.

Breast Milk Cheese

Vegan cheese lovers, rejoice! Breast milk cheese is vegan-friendly, but it’s not for the squeamish.

New York chef and restaurant owner Daniel Angerer received criticism in 2010 after he served up the taboo—cheese crafted from his nursing wife’s breast milk. Critics attacked his “human cheese,” some even calling it cannibalistic.

After all, there is something inherently off-putting about using the word “human” as an adjective for food.

One adventurous reporter swallowed her initial repulsion along with a bite-sized portion of the cheese and found it to be “strangely soft, bouncy, like panna cotta.”

The New York Health Department has since forbidden the chef from dishing his wife’s dairy, but others still produce the “human cheese.”

Casu Marzu, “Maggot Cheese”

Popular on the Italian island of Sardinia, casu marzu is a sheep’s milk cheese. The process of making the cheese is innocent enough, until the cheese makers add larvae of the cheese fly.

Casu marzu, literally “rotten cheese,” uses the acid from the larval digestive systems to break down the fat in the sheep’s milk, resulting in a soft and liquid product. By consumption time, casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.

The milk used in cheese making requires a combination of lactic acid, bacteria, and enzymes in order to coagulate and create curds. It is believed that cheese originated from nomadic herdsmen who stored milk in vessels made from goats’ and sheeps’ stomachs. Because of the natural digestive bacteria, lactic acid, and enzymes in the stomachs, the milk would coagulate. Another cheese from Sardinia, callu de cabreddu is created in the stomach of a freshly slaughtered goat!

Some choose to remove the maggots before eating the cheese, while others do not. It’s purely a matter of taste. Diners who choose to consume the larvae must cover the cheese with a hand; if disturbed, the larvae can jump as high as six inches.

Once the larvae die, locals consider the cheese unsafe to eat.

Pule, The World’s Most Expensive Cheese

Think Camembert is pricy? You really have to fork out the cash to stick a fork in pule, a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. At $576 a pound, it’s easily the world’s most expensive cheese.

It takes 25 liters of donkey milk to make one kilogram of pule because donkey milk has a low fat content. Since each female donkey can produce only 20 liters of milk a year, each liter costs more than $50. A Serbian donkey can make more money than a young Serbian doctor!

It’s not enough that donkey milk is costly; only one farm in the world milks donkeys for cheese. But Zasavica produces the cheese only for advance orders.

As a result, only a lucky few have had donkey cheese grace their palates.

Vieux Boulogne, The World’s Smelliest Cheese

Vieux Boulogne was named the world’s smelliest cheese in 2004 at Cranfield University in England. An “electronic nose” and a panel of 19 human noses deemed it the stinkiest, even beating out Époisses de Bourgogne, another French cheese so pungent it’s been banned from French public transportation.

The “electronic nose” was equipped with sensors to detect a variety of chemical aromas. The particularly strong smell of the Vieux Boulogne was created by a unique ingredient. During production, the rind is washed with beer, and its interaction with enzymes in the cheese activates the powerful smell.

The Agapakis-Tolaas team is also interested in the context of smell with their “human cheeses,” exploring the idea of double standards in scent.

“We were surprised to find a lot of information about how many microbial species that make sweat or feet smell the way they do are closely related to species that make cheeses smell the way they do,” Agapakis said. “These connections were surprising and really interesting from the point of view of what is culturally ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ ”

24 comments
Rían Love
Rían Love

Interesting article, but I do not believe calling breast milk cheese 'vegan friendly' is appropriate. Regardless of the source, it is still an animal product. While in infancy it is a necessity, but in adulthood it is not. However, I will concede that, if there were research (perhaps there is?) showing unquestionable proof of health benefits of consuming breast milk as an adult...well, I may be inclined to change my mind concerning my previous grievance. 

Villa Simone
Villa Simone

the food is a question of culture , if You are not from italy , France or some part of Spain it is really hard to understand about cheese and taste of the cheese .

The hygiene in handling raw materials and Animal Health dairy farmers is the simple key to success. 

For those who are interested i suggest    "Summa lacticinorum"  written by  Pantaleone da Confienza on 1474

Christiane Doucet
Christiane Doucet

I tought I knew a lot concerning alimentation but now my tshin is on the floor

LoPhat Joe
LoPhat Joe

When are they going to start marketing Frum Unda Cheese?

Cow D'Alessandro
Cow D'Alessandro

I think I'd like to see a slice or display of this cheese! Agreed indeed that this is interesting!


Regina Swinnen
Regina Swinnen

To call it cannibalism is quite stupid considering it's not whole chunks of human flesh used for it but the bacteria that live on the body. Considering how many bacteria we carry around, and how much bacteria mass there is in the world in general any kind of cheese can be made from such. Same for breast milk cheese; as baby we fed on breast milk, unless you want to call a baby a cannabalist then it's not cannibalism either.

Lisa Wustholz
Lisa Wustholz

Well - it was very informative and I only wish that the article was longer. Oh... And when are they going to start tasting the human cheeses? What's wrong with that? Even cheeses suffer from being politically correct! :)

Myriam Beatriz Mahiques
Myriam Beatriz Mahiques

We´d remember there was (or is) icecream with human breast milk. I think it was sold in England, can´t remember exactly. Interesting post!

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Humans have come to believe that they are "the most important" in the scheme of things.  If you have watched "Star Trek Voyager" you have probably noticed that everything they ate was the product of ALL the waste products on the ship. We have not yet reached that stage as yet, but drinking water, fertilizer, and other products is often prodced from hman waste. In Japan vegatables were fertilized with human waste, whether they still do this or not we do not know.  Reality however is much different than "human beliefs" which we may have to face one day. There is nothing to say that somewhere in the universe a species may exist that would find "Leg of Human", "Human Rump Roast", "Human Steak" etc very tasty and nourishing. Of course we find it horrifying, but have probably never asked.."What does our cattle, pigs, chickens, fish, etc. think about what we do to them to survive" Anyone who has ever worked in a slaughter house knows  that animals KNOW what is happening to them..  Then, what would you do if you found yourself in a boat with five others and one dead person, if you were starving?  Civilization is flimsy and  in almost every disaster, aside from people helping each other out? LOOTING.  Rather than being the most important, we are a part of the whole and can never escape.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I've never refused to try new foods in many places around the world and I've only eaten a couple of things I wouldn't touch again. I've often been surprised how tasty various dishes and food items have been, despite my initial apprehension when I knew what they were beforehand. 

I'd happily try any of these cheeses and I'm sure they're all delicious too.

Don Kim
Don Kim

So I guess breastfeeding a baby is quite cannibalistic... right???

Noh Lee
Noh Lee

I haven't eaten any of human cheese yet, but really wanna try it with any of those human cheese. It could be a quite unique experience. here in Korea where i live is hardly difficult to find it~ ~ thx for your sincere information.~

Amanda Canani
Amanda Canani

they finally did it. I have always wanted to make human cheese. 

Terry Ward
Terry Ward

Peeps dying like flies of starvation in the Sudan and yobs like this invent foot-cheese from bellybuttons.
  Dear holy bebbe jezus please tell me these dunderheads are not applying for a grant.

Cece C.
Cece C.

I'll admit that the thought of bellybutton cheese made me gag, but I have to laugh at the critic calling breast milk cheese "cannibalistic." Or maybe not laugh, but feel sad that the idea of humans consuming something that's created for the sole purpose of being consumed by humans is somehow cannibalistic. I wonder if this comes from the same line of thinking that's stopped women from breastfeeding or prevents them from doing it in public, since it's been sexualized, somehow.  I also wonder if that same critic has a problem consuming milk from cows or goats. 

We're the only species that drinks the milk of another species, but now we're even disgusted by drinking the milk of our own? 

Not that I would necessarily eat the cheese made from some random human's milk. Just pointing out the bizarre double standard/hypocrisy.  

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