We are a nation that loves our snacks. Not only that, consumers also are opting for smaller meals throughout the day. With many trying to aim for a well-balanced diet that combines healthy and sometimes indulgent options, the dairy aisle can be a one-stop shop filled with limitless snacking possibilities.
According to the National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association, as we are all snacking more, the modern dairy aisle easily fits into flexible eating habits – including portable, on-the-go snacks and small meal options.
The latest dairy innovations are being developed with not only snackability in mind, but also consumer preferences for products that offer distinctive flavors and value.
“Snacking has become a pillar of how we eat as Americans,” said Rod Hogan, vice president of new platform development for Sargento, Plymouth, Wis. “For most people, snacking is part of their daily routine. We know that dairy snacks in particular check many of the boxes that consumers look for when selecting a snack off the shelf. Options such as string, stick or cube cheese taste good, are made with real, simple ingredients and are higher in protein than overly processed snacks.”
Hogan said that Sargento has observed the important role that snacking plays in the daily lives of its consumers.
“This eating behavior has increased in popularity during the past decade, overriding the three-meal-per-day regiment,” Hogan said. “Based on consumer behavior, we know that natural cheese has the right credentials to be a go-to, wholesome, great-tasting snack for many people. When introducing new product innovations to the shelf, we always aim to provide our consumers with great-tasting options that they can still feel good about choosing.”
Hogan explained that consumers today are looking to snack on items that do not compromise great taste for health and nutrition.
“Our focus remains to create snacking options that people can enjoy — even crave — without the guilt that comes when consuming something delicious,” he added.
The company aims to address this consumer need in several ways. The Sargento Balanced Breaks product lineup, which offers a variety of flavor combinations, provides options for a savory or sweet snack.
In 2021, Sargento and Mondelēz International brought Balanced Breaks Cheese and Crackers to the shelf.
“This partnership was a natural fit between two companies with long histories of category-driving innovation — Sargento in the dairy case and Mondelēz in the snack aisle,” Hogan said. “Cheese and crackers have always been a preferred snack for consumers, and the great success we’ve seen with this launch and partnership speaks volumes about our consumers’ desire for simple, convenient and delicious snacks.”
Hogan said Sargento foresees the snacking trend continuing and Sargento is focused on the broader role that snacking plays in the lives of its consumers.
“There’s more to it than just satisfying hunger,” Hogan said. “Snacking provides a break in your day where you can take a moment for yourself. Snacking can give you a mental boost while satisfying certain nutritional requirements — it’s not just about hunger.”
Hogan said he manages a robust pipeline of innovation at Sargento, alongside a “phenomenal team of people who understand our vision to be the most loved, most innovative, real food company.” He said the team constantly examines the company’s snacking portfolio, while striving to provide consumers with convenient options that strike the right balance between taste and nutrition.
The Sargento Balanced Breaks product lineup offers many delicious, satisfying flavor combinations, all featuring real cheese, Hogan said.
“They are a simple, tasty, convenient option that can be enjoyed at home, at work or while you’re on the go,” he said. “Currently on the roster, we have Balanced Breaks Cheese & Crackers, Sweet Balanced Breaks and our original Balanced Breaks that feature natural cheese, nuts and dried fruits.”
The real deal
New York-based Whisps’ mission is to put real cheese back in snacking. In fact, when the company couldn’t find a delicious shelf-stable, real cheese snack, it decided to make one — using its own award-winning cheese.
“Our Parmesan was just the start in 2015,” said Elisa Chiniara, marketing director for Whisps. “Since then, we have cultivated our cheese passion into new cheeses, flavors and products, such as the first Cheese & Pretzel Bites.”
Whisps are made with 100% artisanal cheese from four family farms, using proprietary recipes to create the crispy snack, Chiniara said.
“What makes Whisps so special is that we figured out exactly how to bake the cheese,” she said. “We have the baking/cooling times, temperature and bagging process down to an intricate science. Through our processes, we have created a cheese crisp packed with flavor that delivers on key nutritional benefits. We are focused on delivering snacks that taste great and reflect the deliciousness of pure cheese.”
For Whisps’ Parmesan cheese products, Chiniara said the company leverages cheese that uses old world methods.
“Whisps uses Parmesan made in a copper kettle,” she explained. “In fact, this is the only copper kettle Parmesan cheese made in the United States, and in cheese crisps. The Whisps team is incredibly passionate about bringing high quality, artisanal cheese into snacking, delivering great flavor and a satisfying crunch.”
Whisps’ product portfolio has vastly expanded in the past year, Chiniara said. Whisps’ started as a cheese crisps brand and now offers a variety of pure cheese crisps — including Parmesan, Cheddar and Asiago Pepper Jack. The company also has a variety of spiced versions of its classic cheddar in flavors like Tangy Ranch and Hot & Spicy, as well as Garlic Herb on their Parmesan Crisps.
In 2020 alone, the average person ate about 40.2 pounds of cheese, Chiniara said, referencing published data from the US Department of Agriculture.
“Knowing this, our team expanded the Whisps portfolio with three new innovations in the past 12 months, all featuring 100% real cheese as the leading ingredient,” she said.
More than ever before, Chiniara added, consumers are looking for high-protein, low-carb snacks to power them throughout their day.
“Too often, these products are made with artificial ingredients that compromise nutrition and/or taste,” she said. “By introducing Cheese & Pretzel Bites and Cheese & Nut Mix, in addition to our Cheese Crisps, we’re creating snacks that prioritize our flavorful artisanal cheese, enabling Whisps to expand into new homes and snacking occasions.”
Launched in December 2021, Whisps Cheese Crisps & Nuts are a snack mix that combines Cheddar and Parmesan cheese crisps with premium nuts and spices, delivering a low-carb, high-protein snack mix. Whisps Cheese & Nut Mix is available in three flavors — Garlic Herb, Smoky Barbecue and Tangy Ranch.
A few months later, in April 2022, the company introduced Whisps Cheese & Pretzel Bites, described as a crunchy single bite of Whisps artisanal cheese, combined with clean-label pretzels. They are available in two flavors — Cheddar and Honey Mustard.
“These delectably poppable snacks combine two of America’s favorite snacks into one crunchy bite,” Chiniara said.
Ahead of the pack
First produced in 1872, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, owned by Kraft Heinz, is one of the best-selling brands of cream cheese worldwide.
Keenan White, senior brand manager for Philadelphia, said the company always makes a point to listen to its fans and looks to develop products based on that feedback.
“Convenience is a big trend we are seeing, so one of our focus areas is making a delicious and convenient snack that can be taken on the go or eaten between meals to keep hunger at bay,” he said.
The snacking trend is not slowing down, White said, adding that the dairy industry can continue to stay afloat and compete by creating snacking innovations that play into consumer trends, such as better-for you and on-the-go.
Currently, Philadelphia’s cream cheese snacking portfolio consists of Whipped Cream Cheese, along with Philadelphia Bagel Chips and Cream Cheese dip.
The flavors of Philadelphia Whipped include Original, Mixed Berry, Chive, Buffalo Style, Garlic and Herb, and Roasted Red Pepper.
“Philadelphia Whipped Cream Cheese adds a layer of flavor to any meal with a light, airy cream cheese texture that can be used for spreading on a bagel or dipping with crackers.” White said.
The three Philadelphia Bagel Chips & Cream Cheese Dips available in markets are Strawberry, Garden Vegetable, and Chive and Onion.
“Philadelphia Bagel Chips & Cream Cheese Dip is a convenient and flavorful on-the-go snack that is easy to carry anywhere.” White said. “The deliciously smooth cream cheese dip pairs perfectly with multigrain bagel chips.”
At Hiland Dairy Foods, Springfield, Mo., the snacking trend has been on the company’s radar for quite some time.
“Hiland Dairy has been aware of this snacking trend, introducing convenient sizes over the past two years,” said Rick Beaman, vice president, Hiland Dairy, Joint Ventures. “Among them, Hiland expanded its cream cheese lineup to include six delicious flavors in convenient 3.5-oz packages.”
Hiland also offers seven flavors of 5 oz cottage cheese for portability, convenience and a simple way to get protein on the go.
The company also produces a variety of dips, which have earned a number of accolades during The World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest in recent years. The contest is sponsored by the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association. Over 1,400 product entries from across the country compete in 90 contest classes.
Hiland received the Grade A Grand Champion Award for its French Onion Dip in this year’s contest. The company also scored first place in Sour Cream Based Dips – Southwest category with its Sassy Salsa dip. In 2021, Hiland was awarded second and third place with its Sassy Salsa and Jalapeno Fiesta Dips in the same category. The company also earned third place with its Toasted Onion Dip in the Sour Cream Based Dips – Onion category in 2021.
The team at Hiland sees the snacking trend continuing, but becoming healthier, which is good for dairy, Beaman said.
“Only dairy products can provide a powerhouse of nutrients for snacking that helps the body feel satisfied longer between meals,” he said.
Beaman noted that the company’s focus on convenience expands beyond cream cheese and yogurt.
“In addition to our convenient packaging of yogurts, cottage cheese and cream cheese, Hiland has offered 16 oz milk and flavored milk for many years,” he said. “We continue to look at different sizes and flavors to expand this popular category.”
Milk is the original sports drink with a natural nutrient combination not found in other beverages, Beaman said.
“Athletes of all ages look to milk to fuel athletic performance and to repair, rehydrate and replenish their muscles and bodies,” he said.
Focus on protein
At Bel Brands USA, snack cheese is part of its DNA.
“For decades, we have delivered delicious, snackable cheeses our fans love, with both Babybel and The Laughing Cow,” said Shannon Maher, chief marketing officer, Bel Brands USA. “We’re constantly innovating to bring our consumers new products and flavors that match the latest trends, and now we’re even expanding our more snackable cheeses to other beloved Bel brands.”
Knowing snack cheese is a growing category, the company recently launched a new snackable product from Boursin — Boursin Bites Garlic & Fine Herbs.
“Boursin Bites have the same flavor and creamy, crumbly texture as the traditional Boursin Garlic & Fine Herbs spreadable cheese product, but now in bite-size pieces,” Maher said. “It’s such a versatile product that offers a fast flavor boost to any recipe, appetizer or snacking occasion.”
Similar to other companies, Bel Brands does not expect the cheese snacking trend to slow down any time soon, she said, especially as consumers are returning to more on-the-go occasions once again.
“From lunchboxes to afterschool or pre-workout snacks, we’re continuing to see demand for even more snacking occasions,” she said. “Part of Bel’s history and long-term success is attributed to the fact our company is committed to always listening to consumers’ changing needs and responding with innovative products that meet their ever-evolving demands. Boursin Bites joins our portfolio of snack cheeses with endless creative options for enjoyment, which help please all types of palates and consumers, giving them the freedom to enjoy the product however they want.”
In order to continue releasing unique and innovative snack offerings, Maher said Bel’s research and development teams keep a close eye on all trends within the dairy category and beyond. Babybel’s full portfolio includes fan-favorite varieties such as Mini Babybel Original, Mini Babybel Light and the newly introduced Babybel Plant-Based, which was designed to mimic the taste of Mozzarella cheese.
“We find it essential to understand the larger food innovation landscape to find new, unique ways to bring our products to a wider consumer market,” she said. “The snacking portfolio at Bel Brands USA meets the needs for all types of consumers and occasions — whether you’re an on-the-go snacker, in need of a mid-day pick me up, looking for added protein or take part in a flexitarian lifestyle.”
Minneapolis-based General Mills, makes :ratio KETO Friendly yogurt-cultured dairy snacks. The company shared it has seen a real interest in products for consumers focused on sugar and carb content because they haven’t found what they were looking for with traditional yogurt.
“Keto is a distinct diet that requires calculating fat, protein and carbohydrate intake,” said Karyn Christianson, brand manager for dairy at General Mills. “As a general dieting principle, ‘low carb’ pops as one of the top three words consumers are adding to yogurt in their online searches in almost every platform.”
She explained that :ratio does the math for consumers, so they can spend less time reading labels and “more time living,” while enjoying the variety of flavors available.
General Mills also offers a :ratio Protein yogurt-cultured dairy snack offering, which delivers 25 grams of protein, the most in a single-serve cup in the yogurt aisle, Christianson said.
“We added to our lineup with the new :ratio KETO Friendly yogurt-cultured dairy snack with granola, adding that crunchy topping in the same package, with 2 grams sugar total,” she said. “What we’ve heard from consumers is that our :ratio KETO Friendly dairy snacks all have a distinctive creamy texture in common that feels deliciously indulgent.”
The company has made it easier for consumers to find and purchase its full line of :ratio dairy snacks, cereal, granola and bars, with its newly-launched direct-to-consumer website.
“The site brings everything together, offering immediate and subscription-based purchasing options, as well as the ability to easily locate your favorite products at your local brick-and-mortar retailer,” she said.
While Christianson, too, sees the snacking trend continuing, she noted consumers have an expectation of newness and variety, not only in terms of flavors, but also in new formats or ways to eat.
“That’s why we’re always exploring innovations that might resonate,” she said. “The goodness of dairy is a great choice for all ages and preferences. Our portfolio is really quite broad, ranging from everyday favorite flavors to limited-edition seasonals, and even different packaging choices so consumers can find what works best for them.”