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Cheese of the Month - July 2017

Cottage cheese’s expanded uses appeal to various ages

Editor’s Note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Cottage cheese.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Cottage cheese, with its creamy texture and rich flavor, is a popular purchase for retirees and anecdotally has been seen in new applications among younger foodies.

It is believed cottage cheese got its name because it generally was made in cottages using leftover milk.
Retail volume sales of cottage cheese have grown since 2014 to 515 million pints in 2016 (as of Dec. 25, 2016, total U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores, fixed weight only), according to data from the IRI Group, Chicago. However, it has not achieved the six-year high of 531.5 million pints in 2011.

The food channel — consisting only of grocery stores — has the highest volume sales of cottage cheese, reaching 71.3 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, Walmart had 23.4 percent volume share, which increased 3.2 percent from the prior year, according to the data. Drug and convenience channels had a small portion of volume sales and experienced declines.

Cottage cheese sales experienced the highest growth in the Great Lakes region of the United States, up 2.7 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. California, however, saw volume declines of 1.3 percent.

According to an IRI volume sales index in which all U.S. generations combined would equal 100, retirees purchase more than their fair share of cottage cheese with an index value of 138, while millennials purchase less than their fair share with an index value of 73 (all outlet, latest 52 weeks as of Dec. 25, 2016, based on point-of-sale purchases and U.S. population of generation). When a value of a generation is more than 120, they are considered to be buying more than their fair share, and a generation is considered to purchase less than their fair share when the index value is 80 or less, according to IRI.

• Make process

Cottage cheese is a skim milk product initially, according to Dr. Bob Bradley, emeritus professor of the Food Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and resident expert of cottage cheese at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

To make the cheese curd, milk is put into a cheese vat, where an acid-producing culture and rennet are added to cause the entire contents of the vat to clot. The clotted milk is then cut into either small or large cubes of curd and then allowed to settle.

Once settled, the slow cooking process begins. At this point, the curd is extremely fragile, Bradley says.

Stirring then begins with gentle agitation, and the temperature is slowly raised to 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. At that time, the cooking process stops and the whey is drained. Chilled water is then applied two or three times to wash and cool the curd. At this point, the curd is essentially sterile. The water is then drained and a dressing is added.

The dressing for cottage cheese is prepared independently of the curd and will contain all of the milkfat to create either 4-percent, 2-percent or 1-percent finished cottage cheese. The dressing also contains a small amount of salt and a stabilizer, so that the dressing will bind somewhat to the curd particles.

Oftentimes, depending on the manufacturer, the dressing is cultured to make the finished cheese taste more flavorful.

Cold dressing is then added to the chilled curd. The amount of milkfat in the dressing determines whether the finished product will be 4-percent, 2-percent or 1-percent cottage cheese, and the amount of dressing added usually is one part dressing to three parts curd. The product is then packaged, refrigerated and ready for distribution and sale.

According to FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, 4-percent cottage cheese must have not less than 4 percent by weight of milkfat in the finished food. This also applies to 2-percent and 1-percent milkfat in cottage cheese. In addition, the finished food contains not more than 80 percent moisture.

The ideal cottage cheese tastes slightly acidic and has a flavor of diacetyl (the aroma from microwave popcorn), Bradley says. The mouthfeel describing the body and texture should be smooth and slightly firm. In addition, the cream dressing should not run from the curd but should be thick enough to stay with the curd. The observation of other flavor attributes can be attributed to mishandling by the manufacturer or in distribution, and refrigeration is necessary to obtain top quality flavor, Bradley adds.

• Offerings, trends

Companies offer various varieties and sizes of cottage cheese and are taking note of rising trends.

Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, La Farge, Wisconsin, offers 16-ounce multi-serve containers of 4-percent and 2-percent cottage cheeses made from organic, pasture-raised milk, says Andrew Westrich, a brand manager at Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative. The products are available at natural food cooperatives and mainstream grocery retailers across the nation.

The cooperative’s top-selling variety is its 4-percent cottage cheese, which Westrich attributes to consumers incorporating healthy fats back into their diets — a trend that has been around for a number of years now, he says.

In addition, while multi-serve containers continue to be top sellers, some single-serve containers are the fastest-growing items because they are portable, convenient snacking items, Westrich says.

Rebecca Leinenbach, vice president, marketing and communications, Prairie Farms Dairy, Carlinville, Illinois, says Prairie Farms’ 4-percent cottage cheese is “by far” the most popular variety and accounts for nearly three-fourths of volume sold. In addition to its 4-percent milkfat cottage cheese, the farmer-owned dairy cooperative offers 2-percent, fat free and lowfat/low sodium cottage cheeses in sizes ranging from 4-ounce snack cups to 5-pound tubs. The products are available in retail and foodservice outlets throughout the Great Lakes and Mid-South regions, as well as in grocery and mass channels in large markets such as St. Louis.

To celebrate two first place wins in the 2016 World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest, Prairie Farms also launched its “Best of the Best” cottage cheese campaign earlier this year. The campaign included product giveaways, new recipes and serving suggestions for cottage cheese, Leinenbach says.

• Applications

Cottage cheese has several traditional uses, such as pairing with fruits and vegetables and serving as a side dish to any meal, Leinenbach says.

The cheese’s newer uses include snacking, she says, adding that snacking “is no longer trending, but instead a way of life.”

“Nearly all Americans snack at least once a day, and Prairie Farms’ cottage cheese provides snacking benefits they are looking for — including protein, calcium, convenience, satiety and value,” Leinenbach says.

Cottage cheese has been rediscovered in the last year or two as a healthy source of protein, according to Westrich. He says that cottage cheese traditionally is seen on the breakfast table or at salad bars, but despite not being as popular a purchase among millennials, he is nonetheless seeing millennials try new uses for it as well.

“There are all kinds of fun things people are doing,” Westrich says, noting that consumers see it as a healthful addition to their diets.

Some use cottage cheese as a base on toast and add foods such as vegetables, nuts and oils, he says. Others create sweet and savory batters for baked goods using the cheese.

“It’s exciting,” he says, adding that it seems like a new generation has rediscovered cottage cheese from “grandma’s breakfast table” to a different, “foodie-type” direction.

Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative currently sees the greatest growth and opportunity for its cottage cheese in mainstream retailers because of recent protein trends. Consumers in the natural channel never seemed to have “given up” on cottage cheese, while consumers in mainstream grocery stores are rediscovering it as a convenient, healthy source of dairy protein, Westrich says.

Meanwhile, Prairie Farms is seeing a growing demand for its cottage cheese in all channels, including retail outlets and foodservice.

“In fact, we’re reporting a double-digit sales increase for the third consecutive year, and outperforming the category by more than 10 points,” Leinenbach says. “In a category that has typically over-indexed toward an older demographic, the resurgence of cooking at home and snacking has helped reposition cottage cheese as a versatile protein-packed option for consumers of all ages.”

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