Cheese Nation
by Julie Cook Ramirez
As cheese consumption continues to rise, a wealth of new products provides many opportunities for consumers.

People just can’t seem to get enough cheese. Ever since the news broke several years ago that pizza had dethroned burgers as Americans’ favorite take-out food, appreciation of the many attributes of cheese has grown.
While the low-carb craze itself may have been short-lived, its effects on eating habits have proven to have staying power. Cheese, in particular, received a bump from the low-carb trend in that it opened consumers’ eyes to the high-protein content of cheese and the role that cheese can play as a healthy snacking alternative to chips, cookies and other less nutrient-rich choices. In addition, the dairy industry’s “3-A-Day of Dairy” weight-loss campaign has effectively convinced consumers that they don’t have to give up cheese in order to lose weight.
“The myth was that you had to cut cheese out completely if you wanted to lose weight,” says Rick Naczi, executive vice president of U.S. sales and marketing for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill. “The 3-A-Day weight-loss message has shown consumers that they can make cheese a part of their calorie-restricted diet and still get the outcomes they want.”
In recent years, cheese consumption has soared. According to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans ate an average of 31.3 pounds of cheese per person in 2004, up 20 percent from 1993. That number is expected to keep rising, projected to hit 34 pounds by 2014, more than double 1980 figures. Granted, that’s still nowhere near the kind of consumption seen in countries like France and Greece, where per capita consumption is greater than 50 pounds, but it is concrete evidence of the growing popularity of cheese among American consumers. Even as household penetration — currently at 98 percent — approaches the saturation point, cheesemakers are upbeat that consumers’ ongoing love affair with cheese will provide ample opportunities for further growth.
“People really like the taste of cheese,” says Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate and marketing communications, Sargento Foods, Plymouth, Wis. “Research has shown that consumers are interested in trying different cheese varieties. That’s where manufacturers and marketers can really step up and create a very attractive proposition for consumers.”
Cheesemakers have taken up that challenge, rolling out a wide array of enticing new varieties, designed to keep cheese-loving consumers coming back for more. In Tillamook, Ore., Tillamook County Creamery Association recently added low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella to its cheese offerings. Tillamook’s mozzarella is available in 2-pound loaf, 1-pound loaf, 8-ounce single-sliced, 8-ounce shredded, 16-ounce shredded, and 2-pound shredded varieties. Last spring, Tillamook announced the addition of Vintage White Medium Cheddar to its line. Naturally aged more than 100 days, the cheese features a distinct, velvety, full cheddar flavor that can be served with fruit and wine or added to a favorite recipe.
“There’s quite a difference in flavor profile, when compared to our yellow medium cheddar, which is aged about 60 days,” says Jay Allison, national sales manager. “It makes it a bit more upscale and the perfect addition to our growing vintage white family.”
In Cabot, Vt., meanwhile, Cabot Creamery Cooperative unveiled Mild Reserve Cheddar, a naturally-aged, hand-selected cheese that boasts an “abundantly rich, buttery taste and an incredibly creamy texture,” according to company literature. Responding to the emerging interest in artisinal cheeses, Cabot also introduced Cabot Cloth-Bound Cheddar, a single-breed, small-batch cheddar, which is cave-aged to produce a “buttery flavor with caramel undertones.”
  $ Sales(In Millions) % Changevs. Year Ago Unit Sales(In Millions) % Changevs. Year Ago
Total Category $654.8 7.4% 224.4 10.3%
Private Label 190.6 11.5 78.3 15.9
Sargento 84.8 2.8 29.4 4.7
Kraft 52.0 3.4 18.0 5.6
Tillamook 40.1 8.5 9.1 8.7
Alpine Lace 26.7 7.3 6.6 1.9
Kraft Deli Deluxe 26.1 39.7 9.1 43.0
Kraft Cracker Cuts 23.0 3.9 10.1 8.2
Sargento Deli Style 21.5 18.4 7.4 18.7
Kraft Cracker Barrel
Cracker Cuts
17.8 27.3 6.0 32.5
Kraft Deli Thin 16.3 6.5 5.6 9.3
* Total sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52-week period ending July 16, 2006.
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc.

According to director of marketing Jed Davis, the cheese is produced in the traditional, old-world style, using the exterior mold to create a rind that allows the cheese to interact with its aging environment. Because it is aged underground, Davis says, it “comes up with some real interesting flavors,” something he says consumers are increasingly looking for.
Counting on Quality
Granted, the average consumer can’t afford to buy artisinal cheeses exclusively. However, there’s nothing to stop them from moving in the direction of cheeses they consider closer to the old-world traditions of cheese-making.
Among mainstream consumers, this has resulted in an undeniable shift away from processed cheese and toward natural cheese. This trend is most evident in sliced cheese, where sales of natural slices rose 7.4 percent in dollars and 10.3 percent in units in supermarkets, drugstores, and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, during the 52-week period ending July 16, 2006, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI). During that same time period, sales of processed slices fell 8.5 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively.
“Consumers are trading up for natural slices,” Gannon says. “A lot of consumers will say, ‘I’m still going to buy the processed American cheese for my kids, but I’m going to put a slice of natural sharp cheddar or natural Swiss on my cheeseburger.’”
Answering the demand for more natural cheese slices, Sargento rolled out Duo Packs, which combine two different types of sliced natural cheese in one package. Varieties include Medium Cheddar & Colby-Jack, Swiss & Baby Swiss and Provolone & Medium Cheddar. Consumers have responded well to the line, Gannon says, because it provides variety, while reducing waste, particularly in smaller households.
“People like having two different kinds of cheese in one pack because they know they can use it up before there would be any questions of spoilage,” she explains. “If they bought separate packages, they might not be able to use it all up in a week.”
The growth in natural cheese has also impacted the massive snacking cheese category. Citing an emerging demand for portion-control products, Cabot rolled out Cabot Snack Packs in late 2005. Each package contains eight pre-packaged 3/4-ounce bars of either naturally-aged Sharp Cheddar or naturally-aged 50% Light Cheddar. According to Davis, the natural facet of the product makes it one moms can feel good about placing in their kids’ — or husbands’ — lunches.
Hot on the heels of the success of Sargento SunBursts and Stars and Moons, Sargento has set its sights on alternate channels, rolling out “convenience-pack” versions of some of their most popular snacking cheeses. They include 2-ounce bags of Stars and Moons and Sunbursts, 2-ounce packs of mini mozzarella string cheese, and 2-ounce packs of mini cheddar bars.
Meanwhile, Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods Inc. rolled out Kraft To Go! Crackers and Cheese, featuring Kraft natural cheese paired with mini Nabisco crackers in a portable container. Each package contains two individual 1.5-ounce single-serve packs of either Natural Cheddar with Mini Ritz and Natural Colby & Monterey Jack with Mini Triscuits.
In recent months, Kraft also rolled out Crumbles, a line of natural cheese “crumbled right off the block.” Designed “to give your dishes a special authentic touch,” Crumbles are available in Sharp Cheddar, Mozzarella, 2% Colby & Monterey Jack and Three Cheese (Monterey Jack, Colby, and Cheddar), as well as two flavor blends, Italian and Mediterranean.
Kraft also recently introduced Grate-It-Fresh, an innovative new product featuring a 7-ounce block of restaurant-quality Parmesan cheese in a glass jar with a built-in grater. By simply twisting the bottom of the jar, consumers are able to serve up freshly-grated Parmesan at home.
“In the minds of consumers, adding cheese to a meal adds quality,” Naczi says. “It offers a really nice enhancement without a lot of added work on the part of whoever is making the meal.”  
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
$OMN_arttitle="Cheese Nation";?>