Much has been said and written about the COVID-19 pandemic’s influence on consumers’ diets. The consensus is that many consumers have been seeking out functional and other health-positioned foods and beverages to boost their immunity and overall health.

As a result, the better-for-you food and beverage marketplace has been thriving — and is expected to continue to expand. A new report from London-based Brandessence Market Research and Consulting, for example, forecasts one such segment — the global immunity-boosting foods market — to average a 7.2% compound annual growth rate from 2021 to 2026, reaching $25.2 billion by 2026.

Seeking elevated experiences

However, health and wellness is not the only game in town when it comes to pandemic-weary consumers’ food and beverage choices. In its November 2020 report titled “The Premium Opportunity,” Chicago-based market research firm IRI points to strong recent sales and growth opportunities in premium and superpremium food and beverages.

“Beyond Pelotons and backyard living spaces, consumers of all income levels look to find joy and elevated experiences with premium CPG products,” the report states.

IRI says folks are “trading up” when grocery shopping — and doing so at the expense of value-tier items. Moreover, that behavior applies to both high-income and low-income shoppers. Consumers, it seems, want to treat themselves, at least in a small way, during challenging times.

But what, exactly, does “premium” mean? Merriam-Webster online defines the adjective as meaning “of high or higher than normal quality.” I, on the other hand, define it as “indulgent.” Still others define it as organic — or something else. No matter an individual’s specific definition, however, premium translates into “special.”

A number of dairy companies/brands, meanwhile, are investing within the premium space. Some of the more interest recent innovations here appear on the winners’ list for the Specialty Food Association’s 2021 Sofi awards. The awards honor “culinary creativity from across America and around the globe,” the association notes.

The dairy categories and their Gold award winners include:

  • Cheese — cow milk: Cowgirl Creamery organic clabbered cottage cheese. Based on organic milk, from single-source regenerative farms, the product features “hand-cut pillowy curds” that are slowly set overnight and dressed in the creamery’s own crème fraiche.
  • Cheese — non-cow milk, mixed milk: Artikaas Youngsters goat Gouda. Said to be milder and sweeter than traditional goat milk cheese, the product is aged four to six weeks.
  • Frozen desserts: Tillamook Chocolate Mudslide ice cream sandwiches. The treats feature premium ice cream sandwiched between waffle cone cookies that boast real butter and brown sugar.
  • “Other” dairy: Vermont Creamery sea salt cultured butter. Made from fresh Vermont cream, the butter is churned to 82% butterfat and can stand up to high-temperature cooking.
  • Yogurt and kefir: St. Benoit creamery organic French Vanilla yogurt. The decadent product is based on full-fat pasture-raised Jersey cow's milk.

Silver award winners in the their respective categories, the Specialty Food Association says, include Bellwether Farms whole milk basket ricotta (cheese — cow’s milk), Soignon whipped goat cheese — Plain (cheese — non-cow’s milk, mixed milk), High Road Strawberry and Espelette swirl ice cream (frozen desserts), Bellwether Farms crème fraiche (“other” dairy) and St. Benoit Creamery organic plain yogurt (yogurt and kefir).

Dairy, a natural fit within the health and wellness space, has an opportunity to grab more of its share of the premium pie. Perhaps these winning products will serve as inspiration for new product development that elevates the consumer experience.