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Perspective:
Dairy Research

Cheese joins snack food revolution

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

In recent years, the snack food industry has exploded with an array of new foods in innovative packaging and formats, featuring new and exciting flavors and ingredients. This reflects the often very hectic lives that we (and our kids) experience, where snacks are a convenient, on-the-go eating solution. The Hartman Group recently found that 48% of all food and beverage occasions are consumed as snacks.

In today’s day and age, consumers expect a lot from their snacks. They want convenient, flavorful and nutritious options. The good news is that cheese is one of the few product categories that can meet the high expectations of consumers.

Cheese is also very versatile and can be converted to meet consumers’ needs. For instance, shredded cheese has mostly been sold as an ingredient for other foods (e.g., in baked pasta or as a topping for pizza), while cheese slices are popular in sandwiches or on burgers. When it comes to snacking, String/stick cheese is still a very popular product with the convenience of an individually wrapped portion suitable for a lunch box or on-the-go snacking. String/stick cheese is by far the highest-selling snack cheese item by total volume (more than 250 million pounds sold in 2020).

However, there is still room for innovative new products in the String/stick cheese category. Some cheese manufacturers are making bold-flavored stick/String cheeses or co-packaging it with other snack foods like pepperoni sticks. Sweet, fruity flavored options have also been launched by some companies for kids and, although this might not be something a cheese connoisseur might purchase, the competition in this case is sweet, sugary snacks. Spaghetti-shaped String cheese whips are also growing in popularity and offer a playful option for kids (or the young at heart!).

Overall, I think the dairy industry has been doing its part to respond to consumer demands for convenient yet flavorful and healthy snacks. In recent years, we have seen a steady increase in individually portioned, ready-to-eat cheese combinations that are paired with nuts, chocolates, dried fruits and crackers. This category has increased almost 20% in sales volume over last year.

Packaging and convenience also play an important role in the growth of cheese snacks sales. More companies are packaging pre-sliced cheeses and charcuterie boards in convenient ready-to-serve trays or platters meant for sharing or individual-sized snacking. Several companies have launched portable bite-sized snacks containing several high-protein foods like cheese and meats. These components are usually packaged in separate compartments due to safety and quality concerns.

Cheese snacks have also expanded beyond the refrigerated dairy case. Baked cheese crisps/whisps/straws sales have increased dramatically over the last couple of years. These are shelf-stable snacks that help expand cheese placement within retail stores and allow their use in vending machines. These baked cheeses provide a much healthier option than typical “cheese-flavored” snacks. Cheese crisp products are made with natural cheese and typically contain significant levels of protein but little to no carbohydrates and are often marketed as keto friendly or low carb. One challenge with these types of products is that they have similar textural attributes. It might be beneficial to develop some baked cheese products with varying degrees of hardness or chewiness. There is also a lot of potential to create bold-flavored products beyond the traditional Cheddar and Parmesan options common in baked cheeses.

Bars are another interesting product category for cheese. Although dairy powders are often used in protein bars, could some type of dried or baked cheese be used in a bar-like product? Would that help improve the texture and flavor of high-protein bars (which often experience hardening and a loss of fresh flavor)? We have to keep exploring new ideas and opportunities for dairy.

I know there is a lot to think about as we consider these new products. For some of these newer, more innovative products, it may be a good opportunity to collaborate or partner with established snack-food producers. For instance, packaging is especially important when producing snack foods. Packaging can be quite complex for some snack foods. Many cheese snack products are paired with different ingredients (nuts, crackers, meats, etc.), and it’s complicated to maintain the quality and shelf life for each of these ingredients that likely have very different compositions and water activities.

Here at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), several research projects taking place are focused on cheese snack products. One project is examining how to extend the shelf life of cheese curds. Cheese curds are tremendously popular here in Wisconsin, but many people haven’t experienced the famous “squeak” of a fresh cheese curd, which may only retain its optimum squeakiness for a couple of days. This CDR research project is trying to develop a cheese curd that retains most of its squeak, body, texture and flavor of the very fresh cheese curd so that it can be shipped and sold across the U.S.

Another CDR research project is working on developing natural cheese crisps or puffed-type products. Most extruded or expanded snacks are based on corn/starch, but we would like to use cheese instead. Puffing (expansion) could be done by extrusion or microwaving. Initial results look promising, and novel crispy/crunchy cheese products could be marketed in the healthy snacks category that globally is worth over $32 billion.

We see new cheese snacks rolling out each month, but there is still a lot of room for more products. I think there are a lot of exciting possibilities for new snack product innovations and opportunities to sell more nutritious and tasty cheese to consumers.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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