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Changing Cheese: How Flavor Science and Technology is Disrupting and Innovating the Ultimate Comfort Food
Few categories in the food industry are as large – and stagnant – as cheese. With total U.S. sales of over $28 billion in 2022, cheese is as American as apple pie and baseball, with more than 5.3 billion pounds of cheese consumed each year in this country.
However, despite strong volume sales, growth for the cheese category is slow, with pre-pandemic growth of less than 2% from 2016-2019, and less than 1% CAGR through 2027, according to Mintel.
Cheese enjoys nearly universal consumption figures, with over 95% of U.S. consumers purchasing cheese each year. Clearly, Americans love cheese, but the category needs to continue innovating to pique interest and drive incremental sales. Thanks to recent advancements in flavor science and technology, the industry is developing new ways to entice Americans with more of what they already love.
Innovating Flavors in a “Comfort” Category
The greatest strength of the cheese category – and potentially its greatest weakness – is the fact that most Americans seek out cheese as a familiar comfort food. According to Mintel, more than two thirds of U.S. consumers enjoy trying new cheeses and nearly half would like a greater variety of cheeses in their supermarket. But cheese brands looking to expand the category need to “safely” innovate, since consumers are hesitant to venture far from a known, familiar flavor – a consumer pattern that is only heightened by economic concerns like inflation and supply issues. Consumers want to avoid waste and stick to cheese varieties that are predictable and versatile. Still, the broad appeal of cheese and the potential for bold flavor innovation leaves considerable room for exploration and innovation within the category.
Mature dairy categories like cheese can be disrupted by flavor innovation, provided that brands use widely popular, familiar cheese varieties like cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan as a neutral base for bold, spicy flavors such as jalapeno pepper or garlic. Tapping into the inherent familiarity that consumers seek in cheese, while also offering safe flavor exploration provides a pathway for new product trial in an otherwise mature, stagnant category.
Getting Adventurous with Bold Flavors and International Varieties
Exciting new varieties and flavor combinations are introduced to market each year, for consumers who are willing to expand beyond mainstream cheeses. Often, new product development is centered around taking a mainstream cheese and combining with unexpected ingredients to produce a unique flavor combination. For example, cheeses mixed with vegetable-forward ingredients such as onion, pesto and salsa verde are offering up savory flavors, while piquant seasonings such as Cajun or cayenne are adding a stimulating ‘kick’ to otherwise mild cheeses – all of which expand on the famous versatility of the cheese category. Further innovation is focused on cheeses that augment other ingredients in a sandwich with a rich flavor profile, such as a horseradish-flavored cheese aimed at roast beef sandwiches, or pickled cheeses that complement a Cubano.
Spicy cheese continues to be a trend in recent years, as Mexican cuisine becomes more mainstream across the U.S. and expands beyond traditional Mexican dishes and into fusion menu items. More than two-thirds of consumers in a recent Mintel study ate Mexican cuisine in the preceding three months, mostly at-home, making it the leading international cuisine. As popularity of Mexican cuisine grows, so does the consumer taste for authentic flavors – including Mexican dairy items like cotija cheese, chihuahua cheese, queso fresco, crema, Oaxaca cheese, panela and many others. These rich-tasting flavors are making their way from restaurant menus to home kitchens in a broad range of new supermarket products.
Leveraging Technology for more Flavorful Fromage
As consumers become more interested in sophisticated flavor profiles, the driving force of innovation within the cheese category is science and technology designed to improve flavor, texture and taste. The reliance on technology is especially important in the production of low-fat and dairy-alternative cheeses, which can lose the rounded flavor of full-fat cheese without a process to improve kokumi (Japanese for “rich taste”) and restore the bold flavor topnotes and full-bodied mouthfeel that we expect in cheese and dairy products.
California-based T. Hasegawa USA, the U.S. subsidiary of one of the world’s top 10 flavor manufacturers, is leading the industry in developing innovative technology and processes that improve the flavor and taste experience of cheese products.
“The cheese category is both traditional and cutting-edge,” explained Jim Yang, T. Hasegawa’s VP of research and development. “Consumers are looking to our industry for unique solutions that enable the full flavor and taste experience they love in traditional cheese, even in formulations such as low-fat or dairy-free. Our intent is delivering the optimal flavor and taste experience, without compromise.”
T. Hasegawa recently introduced several proprietary advancements aimed at going beyond flavor and improving the overall taste experience of food and beverages. One example is BOOSTRACTTM, a flavor modulation technology that adds or enhances the effect of kokumi (Japanese for “rich taste”). This unique, all-natural technology improves the mouthfeel and richness of the taste experience, while also masking unwanted flavor notes and amplifying the flavor characteristics that consumers desire the most.
“As a Japanese-based company, our understanding of kokumi is strengthening and kokumi is increasingly being considered the ‘sixth’ of the basic taste sensations and has a major impact on the way we experience foods,” explained Yang. “Technologies like Boostract allow us to focus on the essential role of richness and mouthfeel – unlocking the flavor potential of many products.”
There have also been major advancements recently that directly address the evolving role of health and wellness in the dairy category, such as EmulsiTRACTTM , an all-natural, plant-based milk colloid emulsion technology. This advanced fat mimetic process provides an effective solution for brands that need to simulate the creaminess and rich mouthfeel of traditional dairy in a wide range of products, including many cheeses. In addition to providing a creamier consistency to non-dairy cheeses or low-fat dairy formulations, this innovative technology naturally replicates the richness that whole milk or cream provides, without the use of dairy products or costly edible oils, which have surged in price over the last couple years.
Other processes, like reaction flavor technology add an intense umami and complexity to cheese products. These take a base and amplify the existing cheese notes to produce a more premium-tasting final product. We see the use of reaction technology often in the development of spicy, smoky and Mediterranean flavors – all consistently trending within cheese and dairy categories.
Delivering Authentic Flavor to Plant-Based Cheeses
The single biggest evolutionary change in the dairy category over the past few years is the rise of plant-based dairy alternatives, including an increasing focus on plant-based cheese. According to a 2022 Mintel survey, more than 35% of U.S. consumers aged 25 to 34 have eaten a dairy-alternative cheese in the last three months. This shift reflects the increase in vegetarian, vegan and plant-based diets worldwide, which have been growing in popularity due to consumers’ heightened concerns about the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
The challenge for food brands is offering plant-based alternatives that still deliver on the flavor and familiar aspects of cheese that consumers crave. Often this means offering up creative solutions that adapt foods to fit evolving consumer preferences such as plant-based dairy or other health benefits.
“There is always an impact to the flavor when you remove an ingredient in any food, and low fat or dairy-free formulations can lack the familiar mouthfeel that consumers associate with cheese and dairy,” said Yang. “We developed Boostract and Emulsitract specifically for this purpose, to offer a true ‘no-compromise’ solution that allows for shifting consumer health demands while still delivering maximum flavor, texture and mouthfeel.”
With only 19% of U.S. adults regularly consuming dairy-free cheese, the category lags behind plant-based proteins and plant-based milks .However, according to Mintel, younger consumers in the 25-34-year-old category are more likely to include dairy-free cheese alternatives in their diet, indicating room for extensive growth in the U.S. market. Dairy-free cheese launches have grown 106.7% since 2022 and vegan cheese launches have grown 47.6% during that same time period. Brands are tapping into this market with a range of sliced, shredded and spreadable plant-based cheeses that offer the same appealing flavor and experience consumers expect in traditional cheeses.
The Future of Cheese
Brands will need to keep an eye on flavor innovation to avoid stagnation in the cheese category. U.S. consumers clearly love cheese, but seek more from the category in terms of health-focused varieties like low-fat and dairy-free cheese.
The need for flavor innovation will be increasingly important to retain relevance among younger shoppers. According to Mintel, a quarter of cheese eaters aged 25-34 say that “new flavors” are important to their cheese choices and more than half of U.S. cheese eaters consistently stock multiple cheese varieties at home. Brands can further leverage the health-focus for younger consumers by tapping into the protein aspects of cheese, and marketing cheese as a satiating high-protein snack option.
Mature categories like dairy and cheese have reached a crossroads where growth depends entirely on innovation. While demand for cheese will remain consistent, the only way to grow the category is by offering unique flavor combinations that add value, or by expanding the applications and usage ideas of cheese. Thankfully, advancements in the science of food flavor development are the magic behind innovation in the cheese category, giving consumers an adventurous new twist on a familiar food they already know and love.
Food and beverage brands who are looking to take their cheese products to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities by contacting T. Hasegawa USA at www.thasegawa.com or by calling (866) 965-0502.