As we discuss this topic it is essential to keep the consumer in mind. Consumers and retailers are looking for great flavor (for example, fruity Parmesan), convenience (shelf-stable cheese), nutritional benefits (cheese with added vitamins, probiotics, reduced sodium, bioactive peptides) and consistent quality (new packaging concepts that help prevent defects during distribution, like mold growth, pinking, crystals). So it is key that we consider these needs as we look towards the future of cheese.
There are also going to be many new consumers (children, seniors, export markets) which offer an exciting opportunity; they may be more open to bolder flavors and new packaging concepts or styles.
Based on consumer trends, there are at least three possible areas of focus for dairy researchers and manufacturers. These are:
- Flavor on-demand
- Tailor-made texture
- Novel manufacturing processes
Creating flavor consistency is a desirable trait in any cheese, but being able to control flavor during the aging process will become more important as we look to the cheeses of the future. In particular, it will likely become more desirable to have an intense, unique flavor in cheese that is easily maintained and controlled.
Additionally, the demand for quick flavor development is likely to increase, so focusing on a culture that could rapidly develop flavor should be a major focus of the industry. That particular flavor profile will also need to be maintained during distribution and shelf-life. Some traditional cheese varieties may branch out in their flavor development into non-traditional areas. A good example of this is the rapid expansion of “sweet” aged Cheddars that have Parmesan flavor notes as well as Cheddar flavor notes. New cultures or enzymes and novel flavoring systems could play important roles in this flavor revolution, so it will be important for researchers and cheese manufacturers alike to focus efforts on the development of more pronounced flavors.
Designing or tailor-making specific cheese texture or performance attributes is another important opportunity. The ability to better control and predict the changes in cheese texture and body over aging will expand the end-use opportunity for cheese, and attract the foodservice sector and chain restaurants that are looking at including more cheese products into their menu items.
Tailoring texture will involve better control of the cheesemaking process as well as the characteristics of the final product (pH, moisture, Ca-to-protein ratio, salt, etc). This could involve more real-time online/inline sensors and greater monitoring of the entire cheesemaking process. It will also involve a shift away from indirect measures like titratable acidity (TA) or pH and greater use of direct measures like calcium solubility. Another benefit could be the ability to ship cheeses around the world and have them hold their desirable texture during long transport distribution periods.
We can also expect improvements in the cheese manufacturing process. Issues that cheesemakers currently contend with include: significant losses of fat and protein in the whey, need for improved design of dairy processing equipment to reduce incidence of biofilms or other micro issues, curd with differences in pH/Ca, and an increased desire for uncolored whey and non-uniform composition within large cheese blocks/barrels.
The industry is working on new technologies that can assist with some of these issues, including: continuous cheese systems (for example, belt systems like the coagulator), new cheese colors that only stay with the curd (not the whey), production of “whey” directly from milk using microfiltration, waterless mozzarella cookers (reduced losses of fat and added ingredients in the cooker water), cheese made entirely in its retail container, and use of non-thermal processing techniques to extend shelf-life (high hydrostatic pressure). These types of approaches offer the potential benefits of improved yield, improved process control, and extended shelf-life.
The dairy industry is going through an exciting phase with many new possibilities for improved products that will maintain the longstanding love affair consumers have for cheese. With these improvements comes a need to update our Standards of Identity in the United States and allow for greater flexibility in terms of providing innovative consumer products. If we are able to move forward and create more consistent, flavorful products that can be manufactured or stored in a unique way, the dairy industry can continue to maintain its success in the marketplace.