Marina Mayer  
Executive Editor

It used to be that consumers would go out to eat to obtain the cheese-flavored spark in their meal. Whether it be spicy shredded Mozzarella over a salad or a fresh slice of cheese on a burger, more and more consumers were heading to restaurants to curb that zesty cheese craving.

But as the economy took a nosedive, it provided opportunities for the cheese market to carve out a bigger and bolder position in the dairy industry. That’s why many of today’s cheese producers are creating items that deliver robust flavorings, zesty spices, unusual textures and layers upon layers of taste - all factors in helping consumers return to the kitchen to prepare those high-quality home-cooked meals.

“Cheese continues to be one of America’s favorite dairy forms,” says Erin Price, marketing director, consumer products division for Sargento Foods Inc. “The natural cheese snacks category in particular has been growing. It provides the flavor variety and high protein consumers want with the calcium they need for a satisfying snack between meals.”

As a result, the Plymouth, Wis.-based processor launched Sargento Natural Blends, a new line of natural snack-and-sliced cheese options, available in Cheddar-Mozzarella and Provolone-Mozzarella cheese sticks, Cheddar-Mozzarella, Provolone-Mozzarella and Colby-Pepper Jack deli-style slices and ChefStyle Shredded Pepper Jack and Shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar cheeses.

“Consumers enjoy sharp and aged cheeses as well as cheeses that combine two or more varieties, such as sharp and mild cheddars, pepper jack with jalapeños and habaneros and Colby-pepper jack,” says Price.

To meet consumers’ growing demand for robust flavors, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Montpelier, Vt., developed a new item for the dairy case called Premium Reserve Cheddar, which has a sharper age profile than the company’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar. “This item is designed to give the dairy consumer even more options for bold, sharp, aged cheddar cheese,” says Amy Levine, director of marketing/sales services.

“The overall economic atmosphere will continue to drive the category,” she says. “Consumers who began to go out and spend more at restaurants will likely come back to cooking at home, reversing trends in recent months showing the cheddar category declining. However, when eating at home, consumers do want to still have high quality and not give up flavor and texture.”

Cabot Creamery also launched a renaming of its Sharp Cheddar to be Smooth Sharp, which better defines the taste and texture profile of the cheese, Levine adds.

Most consumers don’t want to give up that rich-tasting experience, but also don’t want to feel guilty about “indulging” in a creamy-textured cheese.

That’s why in May, Alouette Cheese USA, LLC, New Holland, Pa., introduced All Natural New Light Spinach & Artichoke Spreadable Cheese.

“As one of our best-selling spreadable cheeses, we reformulated the traditional spinach and artichoke to meet the consumer demand for a delicious, creamy cheese with half the fat and 30% less the calories,” says Cristina Anton Villa, director of marketing new products. “The new Light has the same creamy texture and superb taste of Alouette, but offers consumers a healthy alternative.”

Last year, Alouette, a division of France’s Bongrain, unveiled Extra Creamy Brie, a triple crème soft-ripened cheese that comes in a 5-ounce carton featuring parchment paper (to maintain freshness) and a protective wooden tray (for presentation).

‘Chef-ing’ it up style

For some processors, their goal is to develop European-inspired flavors that promote mass appeal and marry herbs and spices with cheese, says Chad Vincent, chief marketing officer for Sartori Cheese, Plymouth, Wis.

In response, this year, Sartori released a new line of products that are “innovative takes on traditional products,” Vincent says.

The Espresso BellaVitano, for example, is a sweet, sugary, creamy, butter blend of BellaVitano flavors mixed with lightly sweetened, slightly smoky roasted Italian-style espresso coffee flavors. The Salsa Asiago is hand-rubbed with a proprietary mix of exotic sun-dried tomatoes, onion, garlic and ancho peppers. Extra-Aged Fontina is aged twice as long as usual, Vincent says, to produce a rich, deep, creamy fruitiness. And, Mediterranean Fontina features a creamy base of Fontina cheese hand-rubbed with garlic, thyme, Aleppo pepper and olive oil.

“Cheeses like Asiago and Fontina are becoming on-trend as table cheeses,” Vincent says. “Sartori classic Asiago and Fontina are a perfect balance of nutty, savory and creaminess, which lend themselves well to baking on bread or in sauces. Cheese types treated with spices, herbs and liqueurs are gaining more notoriety and being used in cooking. A well-designed flavored cheese should have a ‘next tier flavor’ that one would not achieve with the cheese or complementary flavor alone but is achieved after curing together. This finished flavor can be very unique and great in cooking dishes with exciting new flavor profiles.”

Specialty cheeses that wow the senses and give an additional sense of value to the consumer are also some of the emerging trends, according to Sarah Zaborowski, vice president sales and marketing for Columbia Cheese, Long Island City, N.Y., an importer of European-style cheese.

“From Switzerland, we represent a cheese, Scharfe Maxx, that though based on tradition results finally in a very unique cheese. It’s a traditional 15-pound wheel but receives an intense wash with brine made of herb, wine and spices. It ages and is washed for six months and the rind becomes especially pungent. But it’s a cream-added cheese, so although the rind looks rosy and standard, inside the paste remains incredibly smooth, and the recipe creates an unusual sweetness that plays against the sometimes garlic or ramp-like intensity coming in from the rind,” she adds.

This cheese landed in the United States in May, and is ideal for a cheese platter or to be used by chefs for creative pizzas and gratins.

Columbia Cheese also represents a U.S. farm-made cheese from New York called Hudson Red. “It’s an adorable plump disc that is soft and washed-rind,” Zaborowski says. “Because it’s only about an inch tall, it ripens quickly from the b. linens, the bacteria responsible for the color and strong aroma of the cheese. It does have intensity to it and is incredible to roll a bite around in the mouth, as the paste is so unctuous and indulgent.”

Meanwhile, companies like Rising Sun Farms are meeting global demand by providing a flavor experience like no other.

For instance, the Phoenix, Ore., producer released the Party Cheese Torta line, which blends soft cheeses with layers of fresh herbs, spices and other delicacies.

These gluten-free, all-natural cheese options are designed as elegant appetizers, spreads for chicken and meat entrees and toppings for pasta dishes. They come in Pesto Dried Tomato (layers of fine cheeses topped with pesto sauce and crowned with minced dried tomatoes), Gorgonzola (blended with pure cream cheese, Northwest pears and a cranberry nut topping), Marionberry (a fusion of marionberries, cranberries and roasted hazelnuts) and Key Lime (key lime, apricots and cranberries fused with cream cheese).

“Retail specialty cheeses can side-step this trend by promoting a fulfilling, at-home gourmet experience,” says Karen McJilton, Eastern regional sales manager. “As frequency of restaurant dining declines, consumer spending increases for more economical, palate-pleasing options in the home. The value of spending minimally on a little taste of luxury at home continues to hold appeal.”

The Party Cheese Torta line comes in a 20-ounce wreath-shaped package equipped with a belly band.

Now that more and more Americans are spending their dollars at the grocery store, stocking up on items used to create at-home meals, consumers can also whip up taste, texture and flavor thanks to the ever-expanding assortment of specialty cheeses. 

New Flavors and Blends on the Cheeseboard

Light Spinach & Artichoke Spreadable Cheese    by Alouette Cheese USA

Salsa Asiago    by Sartori Cheese

Marionberry (with cranberries and hazelnuts)    by Rising Sun Farms

Shredded Pepper Jack        by Sargento

Premium Reserve Cheddar    by Cabot Creamery Cooperative

The Power of Protein

By communicating the protein content of cheese to consumers,

processors can position their products as meatless alternatives.

By Miriam Erickson Brown 

We all want to be liked, but some of us don’t have to try very hard. Take cheese, for example; in recent research, consumers told us they chose cheese because they like the way it tastes. But, I think consumers might choose cheese even more often if they knew what a great source of protein it is, especially since 54% of consumers are trying to get more protein in their diets and eat less meat (one in four adults have cut back on meat consumption for health reasons).

Research shows that one-fourth of meat reducers are already consuming more dairy, mainly because they know dairy gives them healthy bones. The rest of those meat reducers are consuming the same amount of dairy. (I have to pause here and note that opportunities like this rarely come around for dairy).

Consumers do not currently see dairy products as a top source of protein. The top menu choices for meatless meal proteins are tofu, eggs and lentils. No wonder the greatest challenges for someone reducing meat in his or her diet are lack of variety, cravings and poor nutrition. Dairy’s relevance in an environment like this is mind-blowing. Cheese not only tastes great, but also is a good source of high-quality protein. Think about what an effect we could have by collaborating as an industry to convey more protein messaging for cheese, cottage cheese, milk and yogurt, giving us an advantage in a marketplace that is placing increasing value on protein and multiple nutrient content. In fact, 47% of consumers find the message “good source of protein” very important on product labels.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which is funded by the dairy checkoff, created and tested protein messages across multiple dairy categories, including cheese. All this cool stuff can be accessed on

Take a look at a couple of the top-rated cheese messages (when combining purchase motivation and believability scores):

• Cheese is more than just calcium; it also provides protein your body needs to help stay healthy.

• Cheese helps curb hunger with a diet higher in protein. Cheese is a good source of high-quality protein.

• Your body uses protein all day long. Try cheese, a good source of protein, to help you get your protein throughout the day.

According to my colleague Gwen Bargetzi, marketing director at Hilmar Ingredients and a member of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Health and Wellness Committee, “this particular nutrient has never been as top of mind for the average consumer or offered as much potential for dairy as it does today. Highlighting dairy protein and its functional and health benefits will help grab the attention of consumers. To fully leverage this trend and show that dairy is irreplaceable in our diet, better awareness of dairy products’ inherent high-quality protein is a must.”

You don’t have to use our exact lingo - we know the marketing brains will want to make them their own, based on their company’s strategies - but these messages serve as a great foundation. The point is, by communicating the protein nutrition and the variety of other benefits of dairy to consumers, our products become a simple meatless solution in both the nutrition and taste categories. At the risk of sounding cheesy, bring it on.  n

Miriam Erickson Brown is the Health and Wellness committee chair for Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Rosemont, Ill, and the president/CEO of Anderson Erickson Dairy, Des Moines, Iowa.

Protein: An Emerging Opportunity

Despite increasing competition, the industry can capitalize on dairy’s equity

beyond calcium and bone health to meet evolving consumer needs.

By Barb O’Brien  

The dairy industry’s long investment in nutrition and consumer research is paying dividends. Dairy is being recognized for its unique nutrient package and health benefits among the nutrition community. When it comes to the consumer audience, an incredible opportunity exists for the industry to promote its current and future product offerings. That’s why the time is now to promote dairy’s multiple nutrients and the physical and emotional benefits these products bring consumers of all ages.

The dairy industry has long leveraged its superior nutrient package, but in the past decade, non-dairy products have been starting to take ownership in this space. Dairy alternatives, juice, water and other snack foods are taking aim at dairy by leveraging a similar nutrient story. In fact, nearly half of adults now believe that dairy milk and dairy alternatives are equally nutritious, according to Emerging Diets Research, 2010, conducted by Dairy Management Inc.

Today’s consumer environment presents a great opportunity for dairy, with its strong focus on health and wellness. Dairy’s story can help to win the health and wellness battle - it has a superior nutrient package, science supports its value and research shows consumers believe in its benefits.

Despite increasing competition, the industry can capitalize on dairy’s equity beyond calcium and bone health to meet evolving consumer needs. In fact, protein is taking center stage as a nutrient of importance, with more than half of consumers looking to include more protein in their diet (which shows slight growth over previous years), according to research findings from the NPD Group’s Dieting Monitoring Service, 2008.

Consumers have high unaided awareness of the benefits of protein, in general (the only nutrient they show more knowledge of is calcium). They perceive protein as a way to help with the following:

• Build and maintain muscle

• Recovery of muscle after exercise

• Achieve sustained energy

• Suppress hunger

• Slow muscle loss with aging

• Provide an alternate protein source for those seeking meatless meals

This presents an emerging opportunity for dairy to leverage its total nutrient package with emphasis on protein content as a way to help stand ahead of the competition. But, the industry will need to help consumers connect protein and dairy first. Although research from NHANES 2003-2006 (ages 2-plus years) shows dairy already provides nearly 20% of consumers’ protein consumption per day (with milk leading and cheese a close second), today’s consumers give dairy credit for calcium and little else.

While dairy proteins are top-quality, fewer than one in five adults list protein as a nutrient present in cheese. The percentage is even less for milk and yogurt, as indicated in the 2009 NRF Benchmark Quantitative study.

Raising the profile of dairy’s protein benefits is especially important given the health-driven meat-reducing trend. The first step is to reframe dairy’s story in the marketplace by communicating the presence of multiple nutrients. Research shows that today’s meat-reducing consumers do not recognize the multiple nutrient benefits of dairy as a key driver in choosing more dairy products.

To help motivate all consumers to choose more dairy, linking nutrients to specific benefits creates a powerful opportunity. The dairy industry can couple nutrition science in the benefit areas mentioned above to better ladder to how dairy can help fulfill these needs. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which is funded by the dairy checkoff, created and tested protein messages in multiple benefit areas across multiple dairy categories. These messages offer brands foundational statements that can be customized based on business goals and marketing strategies. By using core messages as a base, brands will contribute to building awareness of dairy’s important protein benefits and further amplify dairy as a food group rich in nutrients to meet many health and wellness needs.

The industry can access a library of protein messages as well as consumer insight research to help guide marketing and communications of dairy protein at 

Barb O’Brien is the president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Rosemont, Ill.

Tapping Into the Artisan Cheese Opportunity

Dairy research centers provide short courses and hands-on training,

spurring new companies and new products for cheesemakers.

By Bill Graves

The opportunity is as ripe as the rich aroma from a block of handcrafted artisan cheese. With their oftentimes unusual names, smooth textures and unique flavors, artisan cheese has grown in popularity. Varieties from feta to Gouda to Asiago have become a must on any savvy host’s appetizer platter.

Today, across the United States, almost 1 billion pounds of specialty cheese is produced annually. Cheesemakers everywhere are tapping into this growing market and consumers’ love affair with these unique cheeses. Many, new to the cheesemaking process, are learning the ropes of specialty cheesemaking at the university-affiliated National Dairy Foods Research Centers located around the country.

The National Dairy Foods Research Center program is a dairy checkoff-funded initiative supported by the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, Ill., established by America’s dairy farmers who have a commitment to product, nutrition and sustainability research. The program provides the dairy industry with product and ingredient research and technical resources to help increase sales and demand for dairy. There are five research centers across the country that annually offer 13 artisan/specialty/farmstead cheese courses with more than 350 attendees. The centers are located in California (Cal Poly State University and University of California-Davis), the Midwest (University of Minnesota-St. Paul, South Dakota State University-Brookings and Iowa State University-Ames, Utah State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison) and the Southeast (North Carolina State University and Mississippi State University). 

Research center short courses, training spur growth

The dairy centers’ significant efforts to promote the making of artisan cheese through short courses and training are making an impact on the bottom line. In Wisconsin alone, specialty cheese production has more than doubled in the last decade to more than 500 million pounds. Dairy center technical training and short courses have helped artisan/specialty cheese companies develop domestically produced, high-quality specialty cheeses for this growing market.

Consumer interest and demand for new and complex flavors also has helped artisan cheesemaking grow exponentially, according to Dave McCoy, vice president of product research for the Dairy Research Institute. “The Dairy Research Institute is in step with growing consumer interest and the potential this means to cheesemakers,” he says. “We are committed to providing the valuable resources and ongoing training needed to be competitive.”

From 2005 to 2010, specialty cheese growth in Wisconsin jumped 26%, based on Chicago-based SymphonyIRI data, equivalent to a 35% increase in dollar sales. Specialty cheese represents 21% of Wisconsin’s yearly total 2.61 billion-pound overall cheese production. The Master Cheese Maker Program at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (WCDR) at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been a major driver of specialty cheese growth. Seventy-three percent of winners at the U.S. National Cheese Champion contest at WCDR and almost 45% of the winners at the World Cheese Champion Cheese contest attended short course training.

On the other side of the country, the Dairy Products Technology Center at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif., offers a basic cheesemaking short course to artisan and farmstead cheesemakers. The center’s annual artisan/farmstead cheese course includes hands-on cheesemaking, where attendees make five varieties of cheese in the center’s pilot plant cheesemaking facility.  

Interest has definitely spiraled upward, according to Phillip Tong, director of the dairy research center at Cal Poly and a contributing columnist for Dairy Foods. “It is great to see so many of the dairy processors from this course now making and selling high-quality cheeses throughout the country,” he says. “Of the 60-plus cheesemakers that showcased their cheeses at the American Cheese Society Meeting in Seattle last year, nearly half of them had taken our course at Cal Poly.”

Artisan cheese food safety training 

In addition, the dairy centers will be offering artisan cheese-focused food safety short courses and training. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Food Safety Operating Committee is partnering with the dairy centers to develop a dairy food safety training program for small dairy processors, including specialty artisanal/farmstead operations, on the processes needed to ensure the highest dairy food safety in their unique operations.

With more consumers interested in the unique and broad range of flavors offered in the artisan cheese market, the dairy centers will continue to provide cutting edge technical insight and knowledge to help increase artisan/specialty cheese growth for the industry.

To learn more about these short courses, visit n

Bill Graves is the senior vice president of product research for Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, Ill.