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Despite their obsession with weight loss, Americans are not willing to give up all of their comfort foods, and what could be more comforting than cheese? American consumers are enthusiastically slicing, grating, shredding, sprinkling and snacking on cheese. And their hunger for new taste sensations is driving the American cheese industry to "say cheese" with a variety of new options.
Mintel consumer research recently found most Americans not only like cheese, but regularly consume it. American and processed cheeses are favored in such homes, and 85 percent feel cheese is a healthy part of a balanced diet.
Chameleon by nature, cheese assumes many shapes and forms including: cubes, blocks, wheels, loaves, cylinders, slices, powders, pastes, shreds, sauces, blends and spreads. Even such unusual forms as Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento Foods Inc.'s playful natural cheese snacks, which are shaped into twirls and stars and moons. These flourishes, along with easy-to-open and resealable packaging, enhance cheese's appeal.
Flavor is the attribute most associated with adding cheese in product development. Traditional cheeses, such as Cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella and American, are most often used for both flavor and functionality. But more flavorful and robust cheeses, such as Gorgonzola , the fastest growing kid on the block -- Asiago and Blue are being added in more formulations. These cheeses appeal to more sophisticated palates, growing numbers of ethnic consumers and an aging population that requires flavor augmentation.
From sweet to savory, opportunities abound for adding flavor with cheese. But cheese, in combination with fat-soluble ingredients, spices, herbs and sweet flavors, can help carry, shape, refine and distribute the flavors of other ingredients in the formulation.
"Americans use cheese the way the French use butter," says Lucien Vendome, executive chef at Memphis, Tenn.-based Kraft Food Ingredients. "A dollop smoothes out and mellows a sauce and provides good mouthfeel. The French eat cheese as its own course after dinner. Cheese is comfort food for Americans; they like to incorporate it in many other ways. They put it on their burgers and in their casseroles. When formulating with cheese, the critical point is that one must use authentic flavors."
Cheese is available in pepper-infused, spice-blended (nacho, taco, Italian or Mexican) varieties, designer powders (Blue, Provolone, Gorgonzola and Mozzarella) and hickory or mesquite smoke-flavored selections. Cheeses with vegetable (morel, leek, chipotle, cranberry) or fruit (raspberry) add unique flavors options.
Demand for cheese with vegetables (broccoli) is increasing. Vendome believes sun-dried tomatoes in cheese will be a successful addition. Process cheeses with meat blends (bacon, ham) are also popular, but Vendome says that in food processing there is "an opportunity to simplify the manufacturing of a meat and cheese ingredient using flavors, instead of meat particulates , thus delivering more consistent meat flavor impact throughout the cheese. Rather than pepperoni, we use pepperoni flavor in our sauces."
Along with new flavor options, cheese technologies provide tremendous functionality for new products and exciting options to processors that choose to experiment with new flavor and texture profiles, according to Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill. A processor can choose individually quick-frozen (IQF), which stops the aging process of cheese; restricted-melt, which limits the flow of cheese and prevents leakage; no-melt, which retains shape and texture when heated; and enzyme-modified cheese (EMC), which intensifies flavor profiles. Meltability, stretchability, elasticity, free oil formation and browning/blistering can thus be controlled. And color can be added to the mix for visual appeal.
Texture and mouthfeel of cheese depends on its moisture, fat and protein content. Higher moisture cheeses have a smooth mouthfeel, fatter cheeses tend to be creamier, and higher protein cheeses tend to be firmer and somewhat dry. Chef Vendome says there is great demand for low-carb cheese formulations. "Adding the correct proportion of moisture to sauces using cheese with higher protein is the challenge," says Vendome.
U.S. cheese reference guide
- Asiago , Versatile, sweet to sharp, nutty and semi-hard.
- Blue , Some historians trace it back to mold from the Penicillium family that accidentally transferred from bread to a nearby piece of cheese. Slightly tart and salty. Semi-soft when young, hard when aged, with a smooth, firm texture.
- Brick , Sharp, yet savory, it intensifies with age. Hard, with a granular texture. An American original, first made in Wisconsin in 1877, the cheese-making process uses bricks to squeeze out moisture
- Brie/Camembert , Delicate and mild, milky. Semi-soft to hard.
- Cheddar , Mild and slightly zesty flavor, nutty with age. Semi-soft to hard.
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