|To please calorie-counters and lovers of Hispanic flavors, Sargento recently introduced a reduced-fat, four-cheese Mexican blend.
It's an R&D challenge to work with Hispanic cheeses. "Unlike the common perception, Hispanic cheeses, such as queso blanco or queso fresco, are very bland and under-spiced," explains Sommer. "They have unique melt applications and profiles, and are low in acid, which means their pH is high. We've developed a process to get more acid, increased shelf-life, decreased watering off in a retail application, but yet keep the pH down."
Another area is controlling functionally for processed cheeses, according to Sommer. "We tend to think of processed cheese in single slices, but we're working on making processed feta, blue and Hispanic cheeses," he says. "Normally very crumbly, they can be processed for sliceability and portion control, especially important for foodservice applications." Sommer says customers and consumers want unique flavors. "Work is ongoing to deliver intense flavors in cheese, especially as an ingredient," he adds. "The flavor might be too intense for table cheese, but controls flavor profiles and reliability for frozen entrees, bread applications, breadsticks, or crackers. Cheeses in great demand in this category include parmesan, asiago, blue cheese and cheddar."
New product trends
"Kids tend to like milder flavors and always reach for string cheese, so they can play with and handle," declares Sommer. "We've developed unique kids flavored cheeses for retail and foodservice. We're working on adding kid-friendly flavors - green apple, banana, cotton candy or bubblegum - to cheese. The hope is kids will pick up on those snacks, both in retail and QSR [quick service restaurants], instead of higher sugar snacks."
Cheddar is the most popular table cheese and mozzarella (on pizza) is most popular as an ingredient for adults. "But that's changing somewhat," explains Sommer. "The population is aging, so feedback is that as taste buds desensitize, consumers seek more intense blue cheese and cheddar flavors. That's a reversal of the trend in the 1970s and '80s for milder flavors. Americans are more widely traveled and exposed to European varieties - Swiss cheeses from Switzerland and soft cheeses, like blue, camembert, brie and Roquefort, from France."
Sommer, in the cheese business more than 20 years, recalls in the 1980s and '90s the idea was to make standardized cheddars and mozzarellas. "That's changing; we want cheddars from Vermont to taste different than those from Wisconsin, Oregon or California, and those differences are being embraced."
More flavorful, unique cheeses, ethnic and health and wellness applications are the R&D challenges. "Because of changing demographics, interest is high in Hispanic cheeses," he says. "Hispanics tend to be very traditional; they want the same flavors and functionality their grandparents wanted. Unfortunately, we use the descriptor Hispanic too generally. Hispanic cheeses from Mexico have different flavor profiles, textures and names than those from Spain, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean, so we are embracing those differentiations."
Another focus is mixed milk cheeses. "They include pecorino romano from Italy (made with sheep's milk), manchego from Spain (made with sheep's milk) and chevre from France (made with goat's milk).
"Historically we've thought of natural cheeses - colby, jack, mozzarella and cheddar - as one category and processed cheese - singles, Kraft Velveeta - as separate," Sommer points out. "A new trend is the blending of those cheeses. Called ‘tweeners,' they are not heavily processed, but contain emulsifying salts that natural cheese doesn't. The reason for blending is to get the best of both worlds - the flavor and uniqueness of natural, and the functionality of processed cheese. My prediction is there will be great interest in blending natural and processed cheese because you can build on the strength of both and bring some unique attributes to the table."
Battling obesity with dairy
Cheese consumption has been on the rise despite concerns about obesity. One reason may be some post-2000 research that links dairy consumption - probably the calcium in cheese and all dairy products - with an acceleration of weight loss for people on low-fat, calorie-restricted diets.
"Research demonstrates cheese can fit into a healthy diet," says Gregory Miller, executive vice president of innovation at DMI/National Dairy Council. "When you include three servings of dairy a day as part of a calorie-reduced diet, you can lose more weight as body fat than a calorie-restricted diet with one or less serving of dairy. These studies included cheese as a part of the three dairy food servings."
The dairy industry has gone full-speed ahead with ad campaigns based on the research despite no approved health claim from the FDA and criticism from Center for Science in the Public Interest and Physicians for Responsible Medicine.
We got 186 hits when we typed "cheese" into our search engine at www.foodprocessing.com. That's a lot to digest, but some of the top ones are:
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