It's genetic—and way more common than you might think
There are two types of people in this world: those would love cheese and those who don't. These aren't just folks who are lactose intolerant or dairy-free, though. Some people who hate cheesereally hate cheese. These cheese-haters have viscerally negative reactions even when someone mentions the stuff, cringing at cheddar or gagging over Gouda. And though cheese-lovers are in the majority of the population—and might be baffled by someone having a strong, seemingly uncontrollable aversion to cheese—many people who hate cheese really can't be blamed for their preference. There are actually a couple reasons why some people hate cheese that are based in science, not personal taste.
One hypothesis as to why people are disgusted by cheese has to do with the fact that cheese is basically a product of what Harold McGee describes as "controlled spoilage," in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. In order to make cheese, milk proteins must break down. That's what makes the cheese, but it also causes that strong, musky smell—especially with cheeses that actually have mold in them, like gorgonzola. Over the years, humans have learned to avoid food that comes with that kind of decomposed funk because, more often than not, the food has gone bad and is not safe to eat.
So for some people who hate cheese, it's hard to get over that psychological barrier, associating strong, moldy smells with food that'll cause sickness. "An aversion to the odor of decay has the obvious biological value of steering us off whiffs of shoes and soil and the stable takes some getting used to," writes McGee.
That can be a really hard association to erase, though, especially because there's some evidence that certain people are genetically predisposed to it. You know how some people can't stand the taste of cilantro because they think it tastes like soap, while other people can't get enough of it? It's the same basic idea.
Scientists at 23andMe, the consumer genetics testing company, looked into the reasons why certain people don't like cilantro. Some of it might be based on the environment or the culture in which a person grew up. According to their survey, "only 3-7 percent of those who identified as South Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern disliked it," and those cuisines tend to be heavy on the cilantro.
But they also found that people who tasted soap when they ate cilantro had a specific genetic variation that made them more likely to recognize cilantro as soap, basically messing up their olfactory receptors. "The same chemical can be found in both appealing and unappealing places—cheese and body odor," the experts at 23andMe explain on their blog, meaning that, "Whether stinky cheese and cilantro are delicious or disgusting depends on your particular perception of many different chemicals."
And before you write off the cheese-haters as total genetic mutants, know that this modification might be more common than you realize. Last October, French scientists published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience called "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese." They found that, in a survey of 322 French people, 11.5 percent of them showed genuine disgust for cheese. That's despite the fact that France is, as the study's authors note, "France is the country with the greatest variety of cheeses ... and one of the countries with the highest levels of cheese consumption." Of these folks who couldn't stand cheese, "Forty-seven percent of 38 individuals indicated that at least one family member also disliked cheese," which further suggests some sort of genetic link.
There's still some research to be done about why people hate cheese, but if you're a cheese lover, don't get offended the next time someone decides to pass on the Brie. It might not be their fault that they don't get good stinky cheeses can taste—and besides, it's all the more cheese for the turophiles (or cheese connoisseurs) among us.