Ah, the power of cheese! There is no getting around the fact that the cheese category is not growing as rapidly as it was a couple of years ago. But natural cheese is one subcategory that continues to surprise.

Shredded cheese in the recloseable bags is a consumer friendly innovation that continues to pay off. But recent sales figures from Information Resources Inc. indicate that non-shredded natural cheese has really blasted off in the past year.

In the last quarter of 2002 the subcategory grew 3.6% by dollar sales and 4.0% by units. That's not bad. But in 2003, dollar sales jumped to 6.2% in the first quarter and reached double digits in the second and third. Year-to-date sales are up 11% when measured by dollars.

Meanwhile, natural shredded cheese is up 4.6% by dollar and 5.7% by unit sales through the first three quarters. All these figures represent supermarket, drug and mass merchandiser sales, but do not include Wal-Mart.

There are a number of factors that have undoubtedly contributed to these shifts, including price trends and product introductions. But these subcategories certainly compete with each other. Perhaps consumers are more willing to shred the cheese themselves this year.

In the ice cream aisle, sales have been flat at best during the most recently reported 52-week period. Yet some of the top 10 brands are doing very well. And look, it's the super premium brands again. Ben & Jerry's had the most growth in the 52 weeks leading up to Oct. 5, with an 8.2% jump in dollar sales and a 9.2% hike by units. Haagen Dazs is looking pretty good, too, with 6.2% growth in dollar sales. Private label actually lost a little ground, while most of the top players showed some positive movement. There may have been a pendulum swing from 2002, when price spikes and a sluggish economy may have nudged some ice cream lovers out of the superpremium category.

Finally, we look at flavored milk. Overall, the category continued to grow through October, but it's lost some velocity. In Dairy Foods' Milk and Beverage Outlook in February we cited IRI figures for the 52 weeks leading up to Dec. 1, 2002. Flavored milk was up 5.5% by dollar sales and 2.5% by unit in that period. For the 52 weeks leading up to Oct. 5, 2003 it grew by just 1.6% by dollar and 1.2% by unit. Keep in mind this does not include foodservice, vending or convenience store sales, where flavored milk is getting more and more market penetration.

Nestle continues to be the dominant vendor with its NesQuik brand. Meanwhile private label is growing faster than most brand vendors. IRI includes buttermilk and eggnog in this subcategory.