Say cheese

It turns pizza into pizzazz, chili into cha-ching and desserts into delights

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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.

Sidebar:

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.

- Colby , Closely related to Cheddar, with a similar flavor profile, the all-purpose cheese is softer and more open in texture with higher water content. Doesn't age.

- Feta , Tart and salty, with a crumbly texture. U.S. producers use cow's milk.

- Fortina , Danish-style cheese with a slightly tart, nutty, mild flavor that ranges from mellow to sharp with age.

- Gorgonzola , Ripens to yield a soft, creamy texture with flavor that's slightly piquant and more earthy than sharp.

- Gouda/Edam , Mellow, rich caramel. Semi-hard to hard. Edam is made with part-skim milk.

- Gruyere , Buttery and toasty. Hard with a firm, yet pliable texture.

- Mascarpone , It's a triple cream, with rich, buttery, slightly sweet flavor and thick, smooth creamy texture. It's made with 70 percent milkfat.

- Monterey Jack , Mild and slightly zesty, it becomes nutty with age. Semi-soft to hard. A popular variation, Pepper Jack, includes jalapeno peppers added to the curd during the cheese-making process.

- Mozzarella , Delicate and mild, milky. Soft to semi-soft. This is a Pasta Filata cheese, which refers to the process of dipping curds in hot water, stretching and kneading them into parallel strands, giving it its characteristic stretch.

- Muenster , One of the great melting cheeses, it is mild flavored and mellows with age.

- Parmesan/Romano , Sharp, yet savory flavor that intensifies with age. Hard with a granular texture. Romano tastes sharper and more assertive.

- Provolone , Slightly tart and salty. Semi-soft when young, hard when aged.

- Questo Blanco -- This low-acid, Hispanic-style cheese is a cross between cottage cheese and Mozzarella in appearance. It has a mild, fresh flavor and crumbly texture, which holds its shape when heated.

- Ricotta , Made in the U.S. with whole or part-skim milk, it has a mild flavor with a hit of sweetness and creamy, granular texture.

- Swiss , Dotted with eyes, is sweet to sharp, nutty. Semi-hard.

Source: Dairy Management Inc.

 

Ethnic market opportunities

Hispanics are the fastest-growing population , roughly 37 million people, according to the U.S. Census -- and their culture prefers the taste of authentic cheese varieties such as Questo Fresco, Panela, Cotija, Oaxaca and Monterey Jack, similar in profile to Questo Blanco.

Asians number nearly 2.5 million in the U.S., and have a higher-than-average rate of lactose intolerance. Soft-ripened Brie and Camembert and other aged cheeses are low in lactose, opening the door for new applications.

 

 

Sidebar:

Cheese trends for 2004

- Born in the USA , Domestically produced American-made, cow's milk cheeses are experiencing a renaissance. Competing in taste and quality with European cheeses, their popularity will continue to soar.

- Flavored and small-batch cheeses , Flavored ingredients are blended into the cheese during the cheese-making process. Small-batch cheeses offer a direct connection to the craftsmanship of cheese making and the product source.

- True blues , Creamy, robust Blue cheeses offer big, bold flavor and are showing up in everything from pizza to omelets.

- Quest for Questo , Hispanic or Latino cuisine is moving north. These cheeses, which provide unique combinations of flavors, textures and cooking properties, are found in an array of culinary delights from tamales to tostados.

- Low-fat craze , The obesity crisis will continue to spur interest in low-fat options and the technology is there.

- Convenience factor -- Convenience drives consumer demands in both cheese products and packaging.

Source: Midwest Dairy Association

 

Top Natural Cheese Brands

 

Dollar Sales (millions)

% Change

% of Category

Private Label (Not Shredded)

$1,151

14.5

20.6

Private Label (Shredded)

891

9.0

15.9

Kraft (Shredded)

496

2.0

8.9

Kraft (Not Shredded)

294

4.3

5.3

Tillamook (Not Shredded)

185

5.1

3.3

Kraft (Grated)

143

-3.7

2.6

Kraft Cracker Barrel (Not Shredded)

103

-0.2

1.8

Sargento (Not Shredded)

99

29.3

1.8

Sargento (Shredded)

93

4.3

1.7

Precious Natural (Not Shredded)

70

6.2

1.3

Total Natural Cheese category

$5,597

8.1

100

Source: Information Resources Inc., InfoScan

(Total sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, 2004.)

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