The popularity of natural and specialty cheese is growing as consumers look beyond traditional varieties for indulgent and healthier products, according to market intelligence firm Packaged Facts.
It predicts retail dollar sales in the $16bn market will grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4% during 2014-2018.
In comparison, processed cheese (with additives and fillers) sales in the US are around $4bn and declining.
Tom Pastre, author of the report ‘Cheese: Natural and Specialty Cheese in the US and Global Markets’, told DairyReporter.com cheese appeals to consumers who want different products and are prepared to pay the higher price tag.
“You can compare cheese to other specialty foods or beverages: people are always looking for new experiences in flavor and texture," he said. "If it can be healthier, it’s even better.
“Small producers keep forming in the US and they have an outlet for sales in retailers like Whole Foods, and in supermarkets that have up-scaled their cheese departments to compete. There are also farmers markets, direct sales from local and family farmers, and a small amount of sales on the internet.”
Worldwide, the trends are similar to the US, and Asian markets are particularly fast growing, Pastre added.
“Most manufacturers in Europe and developed markets have focused on new product development, on line extensions and convenience-oriented packaging," he said. "From a product standpoint, launches have continued to circle around formulations that are lower fat and salt, low lactose or lactose free, and organic.
“On the indulgent side, flavors of some recently launched cheeses continue to be more robust, with smoky, peppery, and gourmet varieties most prevalent.
“In developing markets, producers have been aggressively promoting cheese and dairy as a good source of nutrition. In the fast-growing Asian markets like India and China, a continuing shift toward more westernized diets loaded with cheese is helping to drive international growth of cheese sales.”
A healthy option?
Natural cheese is made directly from milk, while speciality cheeses are higher quality versions often produced in limited quantities. They typically have distinctive textures, and include flavorings such as herbs, spices, fruit and nuts.
Cheese is promoted as a fundamentally nutritious product – with calcium and protein - despite the high fat content. Producers have also been creating reduced salt and fat cheeses, lactose free varieties, or products using organic ingredients.
“Most cheese eaters understand that cheese is an indulgence, so they don’t get too concerned over salt and fat," Pastre said. "However, many are eating less but better higher quality cheeses, and organic varieties which many consider healthier (although not lower fat).
“Fat content is bigger concern than salt - the major sources of dietary sodium are processed foods.
“There are better tasting reduced fat/salt cheeses on the market and a small percentage of consumers are eating those."
Mixing artisan with convenience
Cheese is perceived as a healthier snack than cookies or chips, while natural cheese is considered better than processed versions. Like other food categories, convenience is a factor for consumers.
“New formats and packaging to improve portability and meet the demands for on-the-go eating and snacking continue to be popular,” said Pastre.
“It is difficult to maintain the artisan and speciality image once the product is packaged. However some are trying - Parmareggio SpA launched Parmissimo Parmigiano Reggiano cheese bars into the U.S. The bars are individually wrapped and packaged in a stand-pouch. Designed as a convenient snack, the cheese is also promoted as a healthy option.”