Responding to health demands,cheese processors have come out with lower-sodium, low-fat and all-natural products. Consumers seek value, convenience and portion control.

While the government cracks down on food-safety issues and schools re-examine childhood obesity rates, several food products continue to linger on the sidelines of near non-existence.

“Cheeses that will be used in schools are under additional scrutiny to provide healthy nutrients, while contributing to a diet that will help reduce the risk of childhood obesity,” says Peggy Armstrong, vice president of communications for International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, sometimes this focuses on ‘nutrients to limit,’ such as sodium or saturated fat, without consideration of the ‘nutrients to encourage’ provided by foods.”

That’s why several of today’s cheese producers are beating the odds by introducing a bevy of lower-sodium, low-fat, all-natural products that still deliver on taste, value, convenience, portion control and quality.

“There is a heightened interest in the role of food in health, especially sodium,” says Barbara Gannon, vice president, corporate communications and government relations for Sargento Foods.

As a result, the Plymouth, Wis.-based company developed a line of reduced-sodium shredded, sliced, string and snack stick cheeses that are made with 25% less sodium.

The reduced-sodium shredded cheese options, for instance, come in Mild and Mozzarella, and are ideal for sprinkling over English muffins, pizza, pasta dishes or veggie subs. Meanwhile, the reduced-sodium sliced products are available in Provolone and Colby Jack and are developed for sandwiches, crackers, soups, paninis or bagel pizza.

The individually wrapped reduced-sodium string cheese is made with part-skim Mozzarella cheese, while the reduced-sodium Colby Jack snack sticks blend Colby and Monterey Jack cheeses. Both offerings deliver 15% of the recommended daily values of calcium and can be paired with whole-grain crackers, fruit or nuts to make a nutritious afternoon snack.

In response to the sliced-cheese phenomenon, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese debuted two new additions to its Farmstead Classics Fresh Mozzarella lineup. The Marinated Fresh Mozzarella option, for instance, is a custom blend of olive oil, canola oil and spices to help create a creamy, smooth texture. This particular option is created to enhance sandwiches, pasta, appetizers, omelets and salads.

The Fresh Mozzarella Medallions are pre-sliced, medallion-sized fresh portions that are perfect for Caprese salads, sandwiches, crostini and pizza.

“Convenience is always key,” says Debbie Crave, vice president of the Waterloo, Wis., company. “We sell fresh Mozzarella medallions now, they are perfect for Caprese salad or Margherite pizza and the fresh Mozzarella is sliced and ready for preparation. At the same time, people love the fresh Mozzarella per line size (a new size for us) because it is ready to serve in salads or sprinkle on a pizza.”

Flexing the Flavor Palette

Nostalgic eating has not replaced consumers’ growing love of bold flavors and interesting foods and cuisines, says Marilyn Wilkinson, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Madison, Wis. However they want simple foods. “This influence is spawning new, ethnic and flavored cheese varieties, in particular. More washed rind cheeses, more aged, sharp cheeses and more flavors-from clove-studded Gouda wheels to slices flecked with yet another chili variety. Pepper Jack volume sales were up 19.3% for the last year; Provolone up by 12.3%, Feta up 7% and Blue up 4.9%,” she adds.

Similarly, consumers have more advanced palates than previous generations, says Angela Wiggins, senior manager, corporate affairs for Kraft Foods.

That’s why Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods introduced Kraft Deli Deluxe slices in Jalapeño American, Bacon Cheddar and 3 Cheese Garlic & Herb offerings. The thicker 1-ounce deli-quality slices are made with real ingredients, including jalapeños, garlic and Oscar Mayer bacon, and offer a bold taste and creamy melt to any panini, club or burger.

“Consumers today have more advanced palates than prior generations and they look for and enjoy experimenting with new foods, including new flavors and forms of cheese,” Wiggins adds. “With the advent of cooking shows, celebrity chefs, increased domestic and international travel, consumers are looking for more complex flavors, including new flavors in cheese.”

In February, Kraft launched 100 Calorie Pack Cheese Bites. These portion-controlled snacks come in Cheddar & Monterey Jack, 3-Cheese Blend, Mozzarella, Garlic & Herb and Cheddar varieties.

“When traditionally health and wellness implied watching calories, fat and sugar, consumers are now increasingly focusing on the positive benefits of what they consume,” Wiggins says. “With cheese being a powerhouse of nutrients (calcium, Vitamin D), it has a solid presence in our diets throughout our life span. Another health and wellness trend is ‘portion control,’ which also ties to convenience and portability.”

For its part, Emmi-Roth Käse USA launched St. Otho, a washed rind cheese that offers just 3 grams of fat per ounce while delivering a satisfying flavor profile, says Fermo Jaeckle, chief executive officer of the Monroe, Wis.-based company.

“Reduction of sodium has once again joined reduction of fat intake as an important nutritional goal, while the consumer remains committed to flavor more so than ever,” Jaeckle adds.

Since smoked flavoring is a popular trend, DCI Cheese Co. created a smoked Applewood flavor to its Salemville line of Amish blue-veined cheese. Salemville Smokehaus Blue is aged 60 days, features a light and sweet smoky flavor and comes in 6-pound wheels, says Dominique Delugeau, senior vice president, sales for the Richfield, Wis.-based cheese processor.

DCI Cheese also re-introduced Liederkranz, a surface-ripened snack cheese that experienced a 25-year hiatus. This artisanal cheese is an American replication of Germany’s Limburger cheese, but is made with a distinct bacterial culture for ripening.

Under its Organic Creamery brand, DCI Cheese introduced organic American cheese slices in eight-slice straight and 16-slice twin-stack packs.

“Consumers’ lives are becoming increasingly busy, and they’re looking for convenient, healthy solutions in the foods they purchase. We recently introduced sliced American cheese under our Organic Creamery brand to fill this need. It’s perfect for making quick and easy sandwiches for kids’ lunchboxes,” Delugeau says. “Moms can rest assured knowing that the fresh milk used in production is sourced from family farms that practice humane animal management and pasture grazing and is free of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.”

Packing it Up

Food safety issues and tougher government regulations are causing several of today’s cheese producers to revamp their packaging and labels. Whether it’s clarifying label claims or providing easy-open options for the consumer, cheese packaging is getting and looking better and better all the time, Wilkinson says.

“Many advances have been made in improving packaging to protect the freshness of cheese, such as zip closings,” she adds. “Many Wisconsin companies have redesigned package graphics, often to communicate the heritage, small-company aspects that are part of today’s major trends. Recently, and as product variations and styles continue to grow, some packaging includes simple recipes and serving suggestions. Consumers are interested in new cheeses-but they need information about what they taste like and how to use them. Taste is always the primary driver.”

One of the options for redesigning labels, for instance, is front-of-pack labeling, says Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs for International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, D.C.

“Depending on the way that these front-of-pack symbols are presented and the information included, these symbols could place undue influence on the fat, calories and sodium in cheese without emphasizing the benefits of protein and calcium from cheeses. If the symbols don’t show the full nutrition profile of cheese, this could impact consumer choices,” she adds. “However, if the front-of-pack symbol can show the full nutrient profile of cheese, this could help educate consumers about the nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage in cheese. Consumers could see the range of nutrition in various cheeses and could find a variety that meets their nutrient needs, in addition to their taste and variety needs.”

Aside from label makeovers, other companies focus their packaging efforts on enhancing the shopability of their products, Wiggins says, making it easier for shoppers to distinguish different forms, flavors and fat levels.

“The Kraft Cracker Cuts business is transitioning into a new package that is expected to differentiate it better from Chunk Cheese. The new Cracker Cuts package will have shingled cuts and a window so that the consumer can clearly see the added convenience of the form,” she adds. “Another example is our new Kraft and Polly-O string cheese packaging that delivers stronger branding and form differentiation.”

Borden Cheese packaging also is undergoing a makeover, says Mark Korsmeyer, president, Global Dairy Products Group of Dairy Farmers of America Inc., Kansas City, Mo.

“We have revised the Borden Cheese packaging by adding a 100% farmer-owned ribbon on the front panel. On [the] back panel of select natural shredded chunk cheeses, we feature members from our cooperative with a photo and a brief paragraph about their farm to reinforce the dairy farmers that stand behind the brand,” he adds. “The importance of incorporating main messaging holistically - from packaging, advertising, in-store promotional pieces, on our website and through social media - is critical to achieve awareness.”

Other areas of focus for cheese processors are being able to provide more environmentally friendly and easy-open packaging options, Wiggins says.

“An example of that is our new Polly-O Mozzarella easy-open packaging that not only allows consumers to peel open the package with ease, but also uses less package materials due to printing nutritionals on the outer label versus the inner card,” she notes.

For its part, DCI Cheese unveiled state-of-the-art packaging for select products in its Il Giardino and Mario Batali lines.

“The new, 5-ounce ‘squa-round’ cups are molded from FDA-approved recyclable plastic resins and feature a rounded square body that offers enhanced product visibility and exceptional real estate for the redesigned label,” Delugeau says. “The unique squa-round containers and lids include a tamper-resistant inner heat seal film to ensure product freshness.”

Carving Out a Niche

A challenge for several cheese producers is gaining the consumers’ “share of stomach,” Korsmeyer says.

“As a dairy foods manufacturer, we need to maintain a low cost of goods to remain competitive with our customers,” he adds. “As an industry, we face volatility with commodity pricing and rising energy costs.”

On the other hand, the domestic resurgence of the pizza category has been a primary driver in sales, according to Tom Gallagher, chief executive officer of Dairy Management Inc.

The Rosemont, Ill.-based organization has worked with industry partners to help re-energize the category as dairy producer funders recognize that pizza matters, he adds.

“That’s why DMI has partnered with Domino’s Pizza to grow the quick-serve restaurant pizza category,” Gallagher says. “As a result of dairy producers’ partnership with Domino’s, the chain introduced its American Legends pizza line of six specialty pizzas that use up to 40% more cheese than their traditional pizzas, which has helped increase Domino’s pizza servings.”

As a result of this success, Pizza Hut is using more cheese and highlighting cheese in its marketing campaigns, Gallagher adds.

“We continue to work with industry leaders to develop cheese-friendly menu items with national chains, including pizza and appetizer options,” he says.

Burgers also remain a key sales driver for cheese, Gallagher notes. That’s why McDonald’s, working in partnership with DMI, launched Angus Third-Pounders, which use two slices of cheese per sandwich. Initially offered as a limited-time menu item, high sales have forced it to remain on the menu for good.

In addition, cheese is weathering the economic storm and continues to overcome drastic, and sometimes, uncontrollable variables.

“[Cheese] continues to post slow, steady volume sales growth as a total category, driven by segments that remain high in demand, such as specialty cheese, snack cheese, convenience and other trends,” Wilkinson says. “As a result, we believe the overall outlook for cheese is bright. Add to that the tremendous versatility and variety cheese presents, factors that bode well as they have in the past and will in the future. But probably most important of all-cheese tastes good. Consumers want to eat it. There’s really nothing like it.”

There’s a great nutrition story to share regarding cheese, Gallagher says.

“The dairy industry needs to continue promoting the entire nutrient value of cheese rather than let the product be defined by others,” he adds. “This means an increased focus for brands to promote the entire nutrient package for cheese, including its role as a primary source not only for calcium, but also for protein.”

Whichever way it’s shredded, sliced or spiced, today’s cheese producers are beating out the odds with taste, quality and a host of innovative uses and looks. n

Editor’s Note: To learn about new products and packaging types in the cheese category from the above-mentioned companies and others, check out Dairy Foods’ November 2010 State of the Industry report.

Working Together to Address the Sodium Challenge

Public health concerns about the amount of sodium in the American diet and the associated risk of high blood pressure have pushed sodium into the spotlight. Many government and health professionals have made public calls for voluntary reduction of salt in packaged and restaurant foods.    

The dairy industry recognizes the importance of the challenge to reduce the amount of sodium in Americans’ diets and supports public health initiatives to work with food manufacturers and all stakeholders to educate the public about healthy-eating options. This effort includes product development and consumer research as well as identifying and sharing best practices to provide solutions to address public-health concerns while maintaining taste, functionality and food safety.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, based in Rosemont, Ill., is working with the Dairy Research Institute and other experts across the industry to share the most current consumer, sensory, nutrition and product analytical research that addresses emerging issues and opportunities for cheese. Through this pre-competitive industry collaboration, best practices for reducing salt in the cheesemaking process are being defined.

For instance, the Innovation Center recently completed a comprehensive audit of cheese products in the market, which identified significant variability in the amount of sodium content in commercially available cheeses. Reducing this variability can lead to more effective efforts to reduce the sodium content of cheeses in the market. With the increased attention on sodium, today’s consumers are more closely examining product nutrition labels for sodium content.

According to Chicago-based Mintel International, more Americans are becoming concerned about sodium intake and are taking steps to monitor this intake by paying closer attention to package labeling. Reducing the variability of sodium content could help manufacturers improve label accuracy to better reflect the sodium content of their cheese.

At a symposium sponsored by Dairy Management Inc. at the 2010 American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) meeting, industry experts shared the latest advancements toward reducing sodium in cheese, including the role salt plays in cheese microbiology, the important dietary nutrients of cheese, and flavor development and processes for making reduced-sodium cheese.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting dietary sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day for middle-aged and older adults, African-Americans and those with hypertension. The recommended limit is 1,500 mg per day. On average, U.S. consumers ingest about 3,400 mg per day of sodium-50% higher than the current recommended intake. A report from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released in June recommends gradually lowering the current sodium intakes of adults and children to an eventual goal of 1,500 mg per day. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is expected to be released by the end of 2010.

“While cheese represents 7.8% of sodium consumption in our country, we know that cheese has multiple nutritional benefits and can play a vital role as part of a healthy diet,” said Greg Miller, president, Dairy Research Institute and a contributing columnist for . “Not only does cheese taste great - it also contributes 21% of the calcium, 11% of the phosphorus, 9% of the protein, 9% of the Vitamin A and 8% of the zinc in the American diet. We are working closely with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to take a leadership role in partnering with academic, science and health professionals to map out a plan to address sodium concerns.”

Diligent monitoring of the regulatory and public-health environments and consumer marketplace will continue to be important. Upcoming Innovation Center work includes the release of a white paper, “Sodium: Insights for the Dairy Industry,” which provides a snapshot of the regulatory environment and also examines consumer insights and challenges as well as opportunities for reducing sodium in cheese. 

“Millions of adults have grown up eating, cooking with and enjoying the many benefits of cheese,” Miller said. “In order to stay relevant to consumers, ongoing research will help ensure that they will continue to appreciate cheese and cheese products as a satisfying, healthy and nutritious food for generations to come.”

For more information on dairy product research and nutrition research, go towww.

The latest research on cheese and sodium was presented by Dairy Management Inc. at a symposium at the 2010 American Dairy Science Association (ADSA) meeting in Denver. Highlights of the presentations are outlined below:
Model Cheese Composition, Texture and Structure Can Influence Aroma, and Salt Mobility, Release and Perception

Clément de Loubens, INRA-AgroParisTech, Thiverval-Grignon, France 

To limit the impact of food on health issues such as obesity, hypertension or coronary diseases, the reduction of salt or fat content in food products without modifications to color, odor and taste remains a challenge. Researchers have found that a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in release and perception could lead to a better formulation of diet dairy products.

Researchers at INRA-AgroParisTech in France studied model dairy products with different contents of ultrafiltration retentate milk powder, milk fat and rennet to better understand and quantify the role of texture and structure on physicochemical and sensory properties. The characterization of dairy products was performed by sensory methods (profile, time intensity and temporal dominance of sensations) and by rheological (small amplitude oscillation tests, compression and texture-profile analysis), structural (confocal microscopy) and physicochemical methods (determination of aroma- and salt-partition properties and diffusion coefficients). Salt and aroma releases in the mouth were also followed respectively by in-nose measurement or by measuring the evolution of saliva conductivity during consumption.

A dominant effect of fat on aroma and salty perceptions was observed, in agreement with aroma compounds and salt behavior during in vivo and in vitro measurement. However, relating sensory perception and food product properties is a complex issue because of the variety of phenomena occurring in the mouth during consumption, such as dilution with saliva, break-down during mastication, etc. To identify main mechanisms explaining release in mouth, mechanistic models, based on the description of mass transfer of salt and aroma compounds in the mouth and taking both physiological and physicochemical parameters into account, have been developed. From the predicted release kinetics of stimuli (in agreement with experimental data), the respective roles of physiological parameters such as the masticatory performance and of product properties such as its breakdown properties can be established on salt release kinetics and salty perception. The identification of these parameters has to help to reduce salt and fat in dairy products. This ongoing research will allow for developing predictive model, which will help to tailor dairy products with specific sensorial and nutritional properties.

The Effect of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Factors on the Fate of Microbial Activity in Specialty and Lower-fat/Reduced- sodium Cheese

John B. Luchansky, Eastern Regional Research Center, United States Department of Agriculture, Wyndmoor, Pa.

Although the United States maintains one of the most abundant and wholesome food supplies in the world, the country should continue to review and improve its ability to recover, characterize and control microbial activity in foods, including specialty/ethnic products such as lower-fat/reduced-salt cheese. Various intrinsic and extrinsic factors can determine whether or not specific microbes die, grow or merely survive in cheese. A variety of biological (e.g., bacteriophage, bacteriocins), physical (e.g., high pressure processing, pasteurization) and chemical (e.g., organic acids, smoke, oxidizing agents) interventions have been used to better manage these microbes in cheese. However, salt, moisture and fat content, as well as temperature, quite arguably have the most significant effect on the fate of microbial activity in foods. Research on the ability to optimize salt and fat levels to maintain product safety/quality without causing adverse effects on the attendant sensory properties of lower-fat/reduced-salt cheese continues to emerge. With a trend toward consumption of cheeses that are more convenient, as well as lower in salt, fat and preservatives, the sole barriers against microbial activity may be adherence to Good Manufacturing Practices, formulation and refrigeration, coupled with enhanced awareness.

Influence of Salt in Moisture on Starter and Non-starter Lactic Acid Bacteria

Jeff Broadbent, Western Dairy Center, Utah State University, Logan, Utah; Jim Steele, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wis.

The micro biota of ripening Cheddar cheese consists of the starter lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and non-starter LAB (NSLAB). Starter LAB is intentionally added to milk at the beginning of cheese manufacturing, while non-starter LAB (NSLAB) are adventitious microorganisms. These organisms have primary roles in the development of cheese flavor. Unfortunately, the mechanisms by which these organisms influence cheese flavor remain, in large part, unknown. This has made the development of cheeses with non-traditional compositions challenging, as it has not been possible to predict how changes in cheese composition would influence cheese flavor development. It is interesting to note that in both of these cheeses with non-traditional compositions, the salt-in-moisture level is significantly reduced compared to Cheddar cheese with traditional composition.

There are two primary hypotheses for how cheese composition can influence the development of cheese flavor: 1) that the microbiota of cheeses with non-traditional composition differs from that of cheeses with traditional composition; 2) that the microbiota is similar in both the traditional and non-traditional cheeses, but that the physiology of the SLAB and/or NSLAB is significantly different and hence they produced significant flavor compounds. Previous research in our groups and other groups worldwide have demonstrated that cheeses with intrinsic properties less restrictive to microbial growth accommodate a wider diversity of NSLAB, thus supporting the first hypothesis. Research recently completed has demonstrated that the physiology of SLAB and NSLAB is altered under conditions present in non-traditional Cheddar cheeses resulting in changes in the accumulation of beneficial and detrimental flavor compounds. This research has shown that the cheese microenvironment influences the composition and the metabolism of the microbiota. Strain selection is key to enhancing the flavor of Cheddar cheeses with altered compositions. Consistent control of cheese flavor will require a greater understanding of the metabolic processes which determine flavor development.

Combination of Approaches Required to Optimize Low-sodium and Low-fat Cheese Flavors

MaryAnne Drake, Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center, North Carolina State University

Flavor is a defining aspect of cheese consumption. Renewed interest in dietary fat and sodium reduction has increased interest in lowering fat and sodium in cheeses. Research conducted at the Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center at North Carolina State University sought to determine the impact of fat reduction and flavor of Cheddar cheese and determine the source of flavor differences with lower salt-in-moisture. 

Flavor and flavor development in Cheddar cheeses with a fat reduction greater than 50% are markedly altered from full-fat cheese. Similar alterations in flavor are noted with sodium reductions below 20%. Both lack of flavor and the presence of off-flavors are due to differences in flavor release as well as changes in the biochemistry of flavor development. Recent studies have highlighted homofuraneol and phenyl compounds (phenylacetic acid and phenylacetaldehyde) as sources of meaty/burnt/brothy and rosy off-flavors in low-fat and reduced-sodium cheeses. Concentrations and odor activity values of these compounds increased in Cheddar cheese with increased fat reduction. Addition of sodium gluconate to low-fat cheeses decreased levels of these compounds up to 50% but did not impact sensory perception.

Decreasing sodium in low-fat Cheddar cheeses increased bitterness and aromatic off-flavors but interactions were noted between starter culture and salt concentration, suggesting that strain selection would be beneficial for sodium reduction. Changes in salt in moisture influence starter bacteria, and are at least one source of altered flavor chemistry and off flavors. The addition of sodium gluconate helped decrease bitter taste and provided minimal impact to the cheese sensory profiles. In addition, ripening the cheese at a lower temperature (38°F compared to 45°F) past nine months provided lower rosy and decreased burnt/brothy flavors in the cheese. 

Cheesemaking Processes and Strategies for Manufacture of Low-fat and Reduced-sodium Cheeses

Tim Guinee and Kieran Kilcawley, Teagasc Food Research Centre Moorepark, Fermoy, Co., Cork, Ireland

Cheese is a concentrated gelled product that structurally consists of a calcium-phosphate casein/para-casein matrix, enclosing fat and moisture. Both the concentration of the matrix and the level of interaction between the casein aggregates making up the matrix are key determinants of the physical properties. The quality of low-fat cheese variants is not as acceptable as that of their conventional full-fat counterparts owing to their higher concentration of protein in the cheese moisture, removal of the dilution effect of fat globules, higher degree of fusion and jamming of the casein particles and unbalanced flavor.

A key strategy in the manufacture of low-fat (< 3%) cheese is to reduce the volume fraction of the casein matrix and to reduce the extent of casein aggregation. This may be achieved by dilution of the protein matrix on increasing moisture via manipulation of a range of process variables, including inter alia, heat treatment of milk, reduction in pH at rennet addition, gel firmness at cut, curd particle size, scalding rate, scald temperature, length of time in vat, pH at whey drainage, salting and milling (Cheddar) and pre-salting prior to plasticization (pasta-filata cheese). The degree of aggregation is particularly influenced by the ratio of denatured whey protein-to-casein, calcium phosphate-to-casein, the ionic strength (affected by the level of NaCl and time of salting), and pH. Reducing the contents of fat and salt in cheese adversely affects the development and release of key compounds associated with cheese flavor. Moreover, it is important to ensure that the ratios of degradation products of protein and fat per gram of protein or fat, respectively, in low-fat, low-salt cheese are altered to convey flavor perception similar to that of cheeses of normal fat and salt content. The regulation of these factors and lactate-to-protein ratio, a key factor in controlling cheese pH, are critically influenced by the type of starter culture, the level and proteolytic activity of the rennet, curd washing, ripening conditions and rate of curd cooling.