During the past few years, pressure to manufacture good tasting low-fat and reduced-fat options for the foodservice and ingredient industries has grown. New limits and regulations have led to even greater pressure on the dairy industry to produce and manufacture such products. While we face some challenges, the dairy industry has already developed several solutions.

The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, in partnership with the U.S. dairy industry, works to bring innovative, nutritious and profitable products to the global marketplace. As a part of this goal, CDR researchers have developed processes and solutions for manufacturing low-fat and reduced-fat cheese that have an acceptable texture and flavor. These developments include low-fat baking/melting cheese that is produced without sodium-based melting salts, low-fat Cheddar cheese and 50% reduced-fat Cheddar cheese that can be aged for 12 months and that develops a traditional sharp Cheddar flavor.

In the case of the low-fat baking cheese, CDR research has shown that a redesign of the traditional cheese make led to an excellent end product. Essentially, this cheesemaking process begins with the direct addition of acid. This step reduced the overall calcium content in the milk and thereby increased the moisture content of the cheese.

A traditional mozzarella manufacturing protocol is then used to produce a curd which is further processed. The curd is heated and mixed with emulsifiers (mono and diglycerides) to reduce the stickiness and improve the overall color and body of the cheese. We then cool the cheese and add flavors, if desired. At this point the cheese is about 3 to 4% fat. This cheese could also be described as a process cheese without the need for sodium-based melting salts, and can be shredded and then blended with higher-fat cheese (for example, Muenster) to produce a shred blend with less than 10% fat for use on pizza. It would also meet the specifications for use in the school lunch program or for consumers looking for a reduced-fat baking option. This cheese provides consumers with a pleasant flavor, stringy and slightly chewy mouth feel, and good oil release, which prevents excessive blister formation. This novel process has a patent application pending.


Acid avoids a rubbery texture

CDR has also developed methods to produce flavorful low-fat and reduced-fat Cheddar cheeses. Reducing the fat content leads to a concomitant increase in the protein content and associated calcium phosphate crosslinking material, which can lead to a rubbery texture in a low-fat Cheddar cheese. In order to combat this issue, CDR adds a small amount of acid to the milk prior to the addition of rennet. Acidification prior to cutting the coagulum reduces the calcium level of the curd and also produces a higher-moisture cheese.

Both of these steps help to soften the cheese. The higher moisture also means more sugars which ferment, leading to more acid production. Some may be inclined to add water to the process to dilute the acid, but in the case of low-fat or reduced-fat Cheddar, a pH of around five is desired. By obtaining a pH of five, the acidic flavor of traditional Cheddar is present in the low-fat and reduced-fat Cheddars. These varieties require salt at 1.8% to produce the best flavor and shelf-life. We also added selected adjunct cultures to produce more flavor in the low-fat version, whereas the reduced-fat Cheddar does not require this step to develop the traditional sharp aged Cheddar flavor.

Overall, this process leads to a soft-bodied, somewhat acidic cheese. In consumer panels run in conjunction with Dairy Management Inc., more than 75% of the participants would consider purchasing this low-fat cheese when aged to three months.

While it’s clear that these varieties have potential, there is still more work to be done. Retailers and marketers may face the biggest challenge of all, as consumers often have a negative perception of reduced- or low-fat products. One way to avoid perception issues may be to rename the cheese (if you are not restricted by standards of identity) to avoid direct comparisons with the traditional cheese.

From a technical standpoint, the challenges include a lower yield and a shorter shelf life for low- and reduced-fat cheeses. From a nutrition standpoint, we may need to address the potential reduction of fat-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin D. These vitamins may need to be added back to the milk to reach equivalent levels of the traditional cheese.


Raising protein content

When developing a low- or reduced-fat Cheddar, it is important to note that the milk-fat content requirement of a traditional Cheddar is about 32%, while a 50% reduced-fat Cheddar is around 16% fat and low-fat Cheddar cannot exceed a maximum 6% fat. This decrease in fat significantly increases the casein content of the cheese from about 24% in traditional Cheddar to about 30% in reduced or low-fat Cheddar. Perhaps we would be better to more accurately describe these cheeses as high protein (rather than low-fat), in much the same way as Greek yogurt has emphasized its higher protein content versus traditional yogurt. This could be a more attractive approach for consumers skeptical of low-fat products.

As more limitations and regulations are set, it will be critical for the dairy industry to continue to innovate. It is only through this innovation and continued research that successful products will be developed.