Why people love stinky cheese & smelly foods, according to science!

Discover the science behind why people are drawn to stinky cheese and smelly foods and how you can learn to love them despite their strong odours.

By Annie André ⦿ updated March 4, 2024  
smelly foods that taste good to some people
smelly foods that taste good to some people

Do you enjoy the funky aroma of ripe, stinky cheese, such as Epoisses, a French cheese so smelly it’s rumoured to be banned on public transportation, or does it make you run for the hills?

Whether you love or hate their pungent aroma, there’s no denying that appreciating strong-smelling cheeses can be an acquired taste.

Even people like my daughter, who loves eating stinky cheese, can’t deny that certain varieties have a distinctive smelliness caused by “Brevibacterium linens.

Brevibacterium linens is a bacteria that grows on the cheese’s washed rind and helps in the fermentation process, ripening the cheese from the outside in. These same bacteria are responsible for causing foot odour, which is why some people say strong cheese smells like stinky feet or sweaty gym socks.

Brevibacterium linens on cheese are the same bacteria that cause smelly feet

Although it’s counterintuitive to put something that smells bad in our mouths because our brains typically associate foul odours with something spoiled or rotten, it is possible to learn to love them because these smelly foods usually taste much better than they taste. 

Cultural influences can shape our preferences and perceptions of smell and taste.

stinkiest foods: Nato is a Japanese delicacy made of ferment soy beans and is considered a stinky food.

Pungent cheeses aren’t the only smelly foods that taste good to some people.

There are many foods found in different cultures and regions around the world that are thought of as smelling terrible but are considered tasty delicacies.

Examples include:

  • Chòu dòufu (Stinky tofu) – a Chinese fermented tofu.
  • Hkarl – a dish from Iceland made of fermented shark meat.
  • Durian – a fruit from Southeast Asia
  • Natto – a Japanese dish of fermented soybeans.
  • Fish sauce – fermented fish and a crucial ingredient in my Thai dishes.
  • Kimchee – a fermented cabbage from Korea; which I love.
  • Surströmming” (sour herring) – a traditional Swedish dish of fermented Baltic Sea herring, described as smelling like a combination of rotten eggs, ammonia, and feces. Some consider it to be one of the world’s worst-smelling foods. 

The pungent odours of these foods are often a result of sulphur compounds, fermentation or the preservation processes which can make them smell unbearable but still taste good.

Despite the powerful punch of foul-smelling foods, some people consider them to be delicacies due to cultural influences which can shape our preferences and perceptions of smell and taste.

So how can some people love eating these strong-smelling foods when others find them revolting?

Let’s explore the science behind the love for smelly foods and how you can learn to love them too – if you can get past the smell.

The scientific reason why people love smelly foods

learning to like stinky foods

Some people think hard-boiled eggs, fish, broccoli, and sauerkraut are unpleasant-smelling foods, but if they’re not off-putting to you, it’s likely that you’ve been conditioned to associate their smell with something delicious.

And if you can learn to love those unpleasant-smelling foods, you might be able to do it with other smelly foods as well, thanks to two magical processes known as retronasal-olfaction (backward smelling) and olfactory habituation.

Backward Smelling and Olfactory Habituation:

 1) “Retronasal-olfaction,” also known as “Backward smelling,” is a well-documented scientific phenomenon of smelling a food or drink after swallowing it. This happens because the air passage that we use to breathe also connects to the back of our mouth.

So when you eat something, the aromas of those things waft up through the back of the mouth, up the throat, and into the nasal cavity. So, if you like the taste of that “stanky” thing, your brain combines what you smell and taste and associates the initially repulsive smell with how it tastes. 

RETRONASAL OLFACTION

The “backward smelling” processes can also help enhance our perception of flavours in other things, such as coffee, fresh-baked bread, cookies, and, of course, wine.

2) Olfactory habituation is a psychological phenomenon that plays a crucial role in acclimating individuals to strong odours over time.

With olfactory habituation, our brain gets used to a smell over time and starts to like it, even if we didn’t like it at first. This process is thought to happen in the brain’s olfactory bulb, which is responsible for processing smells.

So, while stinky cheese may not be appealing to everyone at first, with enough exposure and positive associations, it is possible to learn to enjoy it.

However, not everyone will undergo this process to the same extent. For instance, if you don’t like the taste of stinky cheese, your brain probably won’t make that positive association, no matter how much you try, so it’s not a guaranteed fix for everyone.

So, while olfactory habituation is about getting used to a smell over time, retronasal-olfaction is about smelling a food or drink after it’s been swallowed.

It’s important to note that cultural influences can also significantly shape our preferences and perceptions of smell and taste.

How to learn to love stinky foods

Learning to like a delicacy that smells unpleasant can be a gradual process if you didn’t grow up eating something, but there are a few things you can try that can help you acquire a taste for it.

Here’s how you can use the olfactory habituation method to learn to like some of the world’s stinkiest foods

  1. Repeat Exposure: Expose yourself to small amounts regularly and gradually increase the amount you try over time. 
  2. Make it a positive experience: Consume the stinky food alongside other things you enjoy. 
  3. Experiment with different varieties: If varieties exist, such as stinky cheeses, start with a milder-smelling one and work your way up to the stronger-smelling ones.
  4. Stay open-minded: Approach the process with an open mind and a willingness to explore new flavours. 

There you have it.

It’s important to remember that taste preferences can change over time.

By following these steps and gradually exposing yourself to stinky delicacies, over time, you may find that you actually start to appreciate the taste and smell of foods that were originally unpleasant.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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