Cheese is convenient. Consumer expectations grow for preparation ease, greater portability, convenience and ease in cleaning up. And cheese responds to all these demands.
Cheese consumption through foodservice has grown such that 43 percent of all cheese sales are through foodservice. Retail consumption is also on the rise, as is cheese going into food processing - i.e., into frozen entrees and sauces.
Many cheeses are organic and natural. Early this year, Kraft Foods (www.kraft.com
), Glenview, Ill., recognized the growing influence of health and wellness on consumption and buying behaviors and responded with USDA certified-organic cheeses. Cream cheese, Neufchatel, Cheddar cubes, American slices, low-fat white Cheddar slices, Cheddar shreds and mozzarella shreds debuted under Kraft’s Back to Nature brand, a brand previously limited to breakfast cereal and macaroni and cheese with organic cheese sauce.
Once thought of simply as a high-fat food, cheese in recent years has won a number of accolades for healthy attributes.
The calcium in cheese and other dairy products long has been associated with bone health. Now, several scientific studies, on both rats and humans, have shown a link between dairy consumption and weight loss.
Most of these studies were funded by the dairy industry, however, and there is little independent research on this topic. The medical journal Obesity Research
published the findings of a study funded by the National Dairy Council at the University of Tennessee. Of 32 obese adults who cut 500 calories from their daily diet for six months, those who consumed more dairy products lost an average of 11 percent of their body weight, compared with 2.5 percent loss of those who consumed lower amounts of dairy foods.
Check-off promotion program Dairy Management Inc. (www.dairyinfo.com
) is reinforcing this "structure/function claims" for dairy and weight management, and the International Dairy Foods Assn. is overseeing the proper use of this dairy-weight loss claim. "Dairy is part of the solution to the nation's obesity crisis," claims Doug DiRienzo, vice president of nutrition research at DMI.
The mechanism for how cheese might help with weight management is unclear. In general, dairy products might contribute to greater satiety than other foods, helping dieters be less hungry and therefore, more likely to adhere to their diets. The calcium in cheese is believed to suppress certain hormones and enhance the breakdown of fat in the body. Increasing calcium may reduce levels of another enzyme that is responsible for the accumulation of fat around the abdomen - thus leading to the smaller waistlines touted in the dairy advertisements.
Sometimes, dieting is a matter of portion control. Cabot Creamery created new packaging in part to help address the rising incidence of obesity and Type-2 diabetes. A graph with 1-oz. increments set along the side of Cabot's reduced-fat cheddar cheese bars allows consumers to more accurately gauge how much they’re consuming. “We got many requests for this innovation especially from Weight Watchers members,” said Sara Wing, health programs manager at Cabot.
Cheese in general and one brand in particular got quite a boost from a certain low-carb diet. The South Beach Diet book casually mentioned the "Laughing Cow/Mini Babybel" tiny cheese wheels (3/4-oz. each) as a great portion-controlled, "one-gram carb" snack to help dieters maintain their regimen. Becky Ryan, director of marketing at Bel/Kaukauna USA (www.thelaughingcow.com
), Kaukauna, Wis., reports that sales of the mini rounds of cheese more than doubled since last year and, more importantly, consumers continue to eat it even after they get off the low-carb diet.
Researcher Syed Rizvi of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who has been involved in several cheese innovations, currently is excited about the ability to capture milk proteins that emerging research has shown to be beneficial for weight management and also for the regulation of food intake, hypertension and muscle metabolism. Rizvi's microfiltration process enables pure milk proteins, once elusive and exorbitant, to be a viable healthful ingredient in nutraceutical applications and valuable condition-specific foods.Fortification
Historically, the dairy industry has shied away from fortification, lest consumers get the impression that milk and other dairy products require the addition of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to be nutritious. But there is some experimentation under way that could make cheese and even healthier food.
Marc Beck, vice president of marketing at the U.S. Dairy Export Council (www.usdec.org
), Arlington, Va., says dairy scientists are working on such innovations as nutraceutical cheeses, with enhanced probiotic content, healthful inulin, extra calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. They should be able to make pediatric and digestive health claims.
Orange juice, margarine, and soymilk marketers have done a good job educating consumers on the health benefits of phytosterols, natural plant-derived compounds that structurally are analogs of cholesterol and consequently compete with ingested cholesterol for absorption through the small intestine. Now these compounds are being added to cheese.
Dairy marketer Lifeline Food Co., Seaside, Calif., was the first and is still the only dairy producer to offer phytosterols in cheese called Lifetime Low Fat Cheeses. A single 1-oz. serving of the Cheddar, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Jalapeno Jack and Mozzarella contains 0.65 g phytosterols -- the recommended amount for the cholesterol-lowering benefit.
"We could not have more than 1 g of saturated fat in order to make the 'reducing cholesterol' claim," explains Lifeline President Joan Chappell. "Serendipitously, we discovered that phytosterols act as fat mimetics -- so, the phytosterol cheeses taste creamier than the regular low-fat product."
Carl Brothersen, Utah State University researcher and associate director of the Western Dairy Center, applies high-pressure injection technology to create vitamin-fortified cheese that taste like regular cheese. The technology allows for delivering valuable nutrients such as vitamins D, B6 and folic acid affordably and with enhanced appeal to a wide range of consumers without affecting the ripening process or flavor of the cheeses.
Austrian cheese maker Kasemacher (www.austrade.com
) recently rolled out cow and sheep's milk cheeses with pumpkin seed and poppy seed. Pumpkin seed cheese is gaining popularity in Whole Foods Market stores for its positive link with prostate health benefits and adds an unexpected flavor and texture to this creamy-textured cheese.The cheese market
The overall cheese category grew 3.4 percent by volume for the 52 weeks ending March 28, according to ACNielsen (www.acnielsen.com
), Schaumburg, Ill. Natural cheese, which has the largest market share, increased 7.2 percent and drove category growth while processed cheese actually lost ground with a volume decrease of 2.6 percent.
Both 2003 and 2004 were good years for most of the top brands of natural cheese, as well as private label cheeses. Hispanic cheeses mirrored the U.S. Latin population, historically major consumers of cheese, and accounted for strong growth in the specialty cheese sector.
Recent data from USDA's Economic Research Service indicates per capita consumption of natural cheese has grown by almost 2 percent annually since 2001. Much of the growth, especially in the past year, is attributed to low carb consumers, who select natural cheese along with cream and butter for their naturally low carbohydrate attributes. As Kraft Foods says in a recent cheese advertisement: "If you can count to one you can count our carbs."