When the news broke, Australia’s and New Zealand’s headline writers were ready. “Poo sausage: It's a thing,” sighed Stuff. “Researchers snag the turd dimension in health stakes,” guffawed WA Today. “MEAT SCIENCE: BABY POO TASTES BEST!” snarked blogger Cameron Slater.
The impetus for this irresistible clickbait was a study published recently in carnivorous research journal Meat Science, in which Spanish researchers developed sausages using three strains of bacteria isolated from infants’ feces. (The reason the story broke out in Australia is that a media-savvy Australian scientist with the surprisingly apt name of Hani Al-Salami granted WA Today an interview about the study, even though Al-Salami was not personally involved in the research.)
Baby poop sausages definitely sound disgusting. But in reality, they’re not nearly as gross as you’d think based on these sensationalistic news stories. In fact, you have probably already consumed foods or supplements made with a bacterial strain derived from human feces without even knowing it.
“Some probiotics—not all, but some—are isolated from feces,” says Mary Ellen Sanders, a consultant in probiotic microbiology. (Probiotics, recall, are any bacteria that confer health benefits.) Sanders gave the example of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, a probiotic that was isolated from human feces in 1983 and is now widely used in products such as “buttermilks, yoghurts, milk, fruit drinks, ‘daily dose’ drinks and fermented whey-based drinks.” (Incidentally, the Spanish researchers who made sausage with infant fecal bacteria compared it to sausage made with L. rhamnosus GG, which they classified as a commercial probiotic strain.) “It used to be a tenet of the field of probiotics that you wanted to isolate [bacteria] from human sources, because the thinking has always been that that would increase the likelihood that they would have beneficial physiological effects in humans,” says Sanders.
And there’s no reason to be skeeved out either by the yogurt in your fridge that contains L. rhamnosus GG or the sausages containing those newly isolated infant fecal bacteria. When scientists want to isolate a strain of bacteria from human feces—which can contain thousands of species of bacteria—they repeatedly dilute the fecal sample until they can isolate a tiny quantity of the specific strain they’re looking to study, then they give the strain time to reproduce in a petri dish. “There’s no carry-over, obviously, from any source materials,” Sanders emphasized as she described this process to me.
Although most people find fecal matter disgusting and have been conditioned to avoid contact with it, our aversion to it is disproportionate to the risk it poses. Many strains of bacteria found in poop are harmless or even beneficial—and, more importantly, they’re everywhere already. If you want to avoid ever eating any type of bacteria that originated in a human intestine, not eating those baby poop sausages isn’t enough—you’re going to have to stop eating, period.