CHICAGO -- The COVID-19 pandemic shifted a significant amount of cheese consumption from foodservice, where about one-third of all cheese is consumed in the US, to at-home consumption. While retailers benefitted, commodity cheese manufacturers found themselves in a challenging position this past year, with excess supplies of the basics that go on burgers, pizzas and tacos. Some cheese marketers quickly pivoted to become more competitive in the retail sector, this included getting creative with milks, flavors and formats.

“In 2020, the dairy department grew from being a $54 billion business to generating more than $61 billion,” said Abrielle Backhaus, research coordinator, International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. “Milk and natural cheese remained the two sales powerhouses all year long.”

Retail natural cheese dollar sales were up $2 billion in 2020, as compared to the previous year, which is reflective of a 19.6% increase, ending the year at $11.9 billion, according to data from IRI, Chicago. Processed cheese—everything from American slices to cold-pack spreads--reached $2.5 billion, which is a 16.4% increase from the previous year.

With more consumers eating breakfast at home, including the popular bagel and cream cheese, this cultured dairy spread experienced a 17.5% increase in dollar sales, reaching a value of $2.1 billion at retail.

Marketers are staying busy rolling out new products to keep the momentum going. Suppliers are assisting with ingredient technologies to keep product consistent, fresh and economically feasible.  


Four fundamental ingredients

All “real” cheeses are made from some type of milk, most notably from a cow, but goat and sheep are gaining traction. With the help of just three additional ingredients—cultures, enzymes and salt—that milk is converted into more than 300 varieties of cheese in the US. Most commodity cheeses -- American, cheddar, mozzarella and even pepper Jack --are produced in closed, automated systems that require little to no human interaction. It’s the cheeses that are made in small batches, and often hand cut, manually seasoned and possibly formed into unique shapes, that garnered attention during the pandemic, providing permission to consumers suffering from food fatigue to dip into their pockets and splurge.

Aldi Inc., Batavia, Ill., has been a leader in offering limited-edition, seasonal cheeses even before the pandemic. The private-label retailer stepped-up its efforts this past year and continues to do so, with its most recent innovation being wax-coated 5.3-oz Mother’s Day cheeses. The pink tulip-shaped offering, which included messaging of “Who needs flowers when you can have cheese? Happy Mother’s Day,” was Wensleydale cheese with strawberries and prosecco. The red heart variety was a mature cheddar with whimsical scripting of “Mom, you’re really grate’ and showed a cheese grater.

Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., saw an opportunity to develop a clean label version of the familiar pasteurized processed American cheese slices that come individually wrapped in cellophane. New Organic Valley American Cheese Premium Pasteurized Prepared Cheese delivers all the melt and flavor consumers want. The slices are made with seven ingredients, including butter from pasture-raised cows. With no preservatives or added hormones, the combination of butter and cheddar creates a meltier cheese with a mom-approved clean ingredient list. The slices debuted in yellow and white varieties, with each 5-oz pack containing eight slices.

Cheese wraps became a thing the past few years, with more stores now stocking them. Intended to be a tortilla or flatbread replacement, cheese wraps contain no carbohydrates, making them Atkins and keto friendly. Crystal Farms, Lake Mills, Wis., recently added a cheddar and Monterey Jack blend to its lineup. The 1-oz cheese slices are sold in six packs in a convenient resealable tray.

Face Rock Creamery, Bandon, Ore., introduced Face2Face blended aged cheddar this year. The 12-month aged cheddar is made from a balanced blend of milk sourced from cow and sheep farmers located on the Southern Oregon coast. The cheese has a dense, creamy base from high butterfat cows’ milk and a slight salty piquancy from the sheep’s milk. It comes in 6- and 8-oz blocks for retail and direct consumer sales, as well as 9-pound loafs for foodservice. It’s also available as a compact 7-lb clothbound wheel, aged for a minimum of 13 months. Face Rock takes a unique approach to its clothbound process by coating the wheels in butter made on site at the creamery using the same milk that goes into the cheese.


Beyond the cow

Goat cheese manufacturers recognized the opportunity to attract consumers craving flavor innovation with a range of new offerings. Also known as chevre, the soft, fresh varieties function as a creamy canvas for the addition of everything from fruits to peppers. 

LaClare Family Creamery, Malone, Wis., debuted 4-oz tubs of garlic herb, honey and original crumbles for the winter months. The company uses goats’ milk to make all types of cheeses, including cheddar, Monterey Jack and mozzarella. Its most popular chevres are the 4-oz logs that come in a dozen varieties, including some unique combinations, such as blueberry vanilla, chipotle honey, everything bagel, fig with honey and maple bourbon.

Chevre has been experiencing steady growth in the United States as consumers discover that goats’ milk tastes similar to cows’ milk, is equally nutritious—if not better--and is easier to digest. Farmers and marketers have become more aggressive educating consumers on the benefits of goats’ milk and products made from it. The main differences are in protein and fat composition. For starters, goats’ milk has been shown to be less allergenic than cows’ milk because of its low concentration of the highly allergenic protein known as alpha S-1 casein, a protein found in significantly high levels in cows’ milk. Beta-caseins are the major proteins in human and goats’ milk, as opposed to the alpha-caseins predominant in cows’ milk. The near absence of alpha S-1 casein in goats’ milk provides for a softer curd that is easier to digest.  

Another reason many find goats’ milk to be easier to digest is because of its smaller fat globules, as compared to cows’ milk. It also contains less lactose than cows’ milk, which is important to those with lactose intolerance.  

From an appearance and flavor perspective, goats’ milk is comparable to cows’ milk. It’s just as white and has a slightly sweet taste often described as “hazelnutty.” The smaller fat globules yield a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, even without homogenization. Goats’ milk fat is higher in some essential fatty acids, as compared to cows’ milkfat.


Supplier innovations

As mentioned, only three ingredients—cultures, enzymes and salt—are required to turn milk into cheese. While milk and salt are basic commodities, cultures and enzymes are anything but basic. These ingredients contribute to the unique colors, flavors and textures of cheese. They also assist with product quality and economics.  

Cultures and enzymes are found in nature. They are highly specialized biological ingredients used throughout the dairy industry. In cheese they mostly function as performance ingredients, doing everything from coagulating milk into curd to producing bio-protective fermentates. Other times they deliver health benefits to the consumer, such as probiotics to boost immunity.

Bel Brands USA, Chicago, added value to its Babybel snacking cheese line through the addition of probiotic cultures. Wrapped in the brand’s signature red wax and created to meet the rising consumer demand for functional products in 2021, the new Babybel Plus+ Probiotic dairy snacks contain billions of live and active cultures of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, also known as LGG. This probiotic strain from Chr. Hansen Holding A/S, Denmark, has been shown to provide immune health benefits when consumed as a part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

Performance cultures are continuously being enhanced in order to improve the cheesemaking process. This is especially true in the production of commodity, bulk cheeses. 

Royal DSM, The Netherlands, recently introduced cultures that boost the yield and resource efficiency of mozzarella cheese production. Capable of achieving a higher moisture content in mozzarella, the range increases yield by up to 1.3%, compared to the most commonly used direct vat set culture, according to the company. They also accelerate acidification while providing consistent performance. DSM’s fermented chymosin coagulants further enhance yield, allowing manufacturers to optimize raw material efficiency and achieve high whey quality. These cultures are intended for pizza cheese, as the shredded format has a mild buttery flavor, excellent stretch and melt behavior, and reduced browning for an enhanced eating experience. 

“It can be a complex challenge for cheesemakers to meet rising consumer demand for high-quality mozzarella cheese products, while continuing to be economically and operationally efficient,” said Evandro Oliveira de Souza, business lead for cheese at DSM.

IFF, New York, which recently merged with DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, has a relatively new culture for pizza cheese manufacturing, too. The cultures are designed for foodservice pizza making, as the cheese bakes up the same in the wide range of ovens found around the world. The cultures are clean label solutions to control browning, while using less water in cheese production, producing a lower volume of whey and requiring less energy for whey drying.

“As demand rises across the global pizza industry, pizza cheesemakers have looked for solutions to make substantial improvement on the quality and consistency of their product,” said Annie Mornet, global product manager for cheese cultures, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences. “The cultures have been designed to provide the right acidification kinetics and proteolytic features to manage the yield and mineralization of the cheese. The metabolism of the different species allows for a better consumption of the sugars, especially galactose, throughout the process.”