In a country full of self-proclaimed foodies with diverse flavor preferences there is one ingredient many have an affinity for, and that is cheese. In its many varieties and forms, cheese is increasingly a characterizing flavor of all types of foods ... from baby food to soup, and the trend shows no signs of letting up.

There has been a rise in the per cent of new product rollouts flagging cheese as an ingredient in the past few years, according to Mintel International, Chicago. (See chart on Page 34.) The cheese industry is meeting the demand by making more cheese, which for some manufacturers is considered the byproduct of whey production. Regardless if it is the primary product or a byproduct, there’s a lot of cheese being produced in the United States. In fact, U.S. cheese production is at an all-time high, more than doubling during the past 25 years for a total 10.89 billion lbs in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

Not surprisingly, cheese consumption is also at an all-time high. During the past 25 years, U.S. per capita cheese consumption increased 39% — to 33.5 lbs from 24.1 lbs, according to the U.S.D.A.

A trend that’s energizing the growth is the popularity of specialty cheese as a standalone retail product and also as an ingredient in food processing. Reported growth rates in traditional grocery stores put Gouda volume sales at an 11.2%
increase from 2011 to 2012, while fresh mozzarella was up 9.3%, according to data from I.R.I., Chicago. Other increasingly popular cheeses include feta and all types of Hispanic-style cheeses and specialty hard-type Italian cheeses.

Cheeses with bold flavor are experiencing rapid growth, attributable to a number of factors such as the burgeoning Hispanic influence in the United States, more sophisticated and global life experiences and aging taste buds. Bold is not exclusive to spicy. Herbs and spices also are enlivening the profiles of specialty cheeses.

Complementing today’s label trends

It is no wonder that cheese as an ingredient is so popular, as it feeds into two of the most significant food trends in the packaged goods sector. It is a source of high-quality protein and is inherently gluten-free. Twenty per cent of retail food product introductions in 2012 included protein, as reported by the Wall St. Cheat Sheet, while grocery aisles are bursting with gluten-free offerings.

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (W.M.M.B.), Madison, Wis., estimates industrial cheese usage, also commonly referred to as the food processing channel, represents approximately 25% of all cheese consumed in the United States. Where does the rest of the cheese go? The W.M.M.B. estimates 39% goes into the food service channel and 36% into the retail channel.

The majority of the cheese used in food processing ends up in retail, but a significant portion makes its way into food service as well. The W.M.M.B. estimates that 54% of industrially produced foods that contain cheese are sold the retail sector. The other 46% of sales are sold through food service. Regarding the latter, such heat-and-eat appetizers as mozzarella sticks and stuffed potato skins, are the type of products generating sales. Both are frequent menu options at casual restaurants.

Most food processors are holding steady on the amounts of cheese being used, according to “Cheese usage in the food processing channel, 2012,” a report published by the W.M.M.B. While most processors said they are not necessarily reducing use, they also are not actively working to change formulations to add cheese to existing products. With new products, it is another story, as exemplified by the Mintel data.

The W.M.M.B. study supports the Mintel data. It shows that more cheese is being used in appetizers, prepared entrees, side dishes and the combined category of soups/sauces/dressings/dips. Interestingly, where cheese usage is going down is packaged pizza.

Still, in 2012, mozzarella — pizza’s predominant cheese — was the leading cheese variety in the food processing channel. Cheddar remains the second highest volume cheese. Together, the two account for more than 60% of all cheese used for industrial and ingredient purposes, according to the W.M.M.B.

The third leading cheese is cream cheese, largely driven by its use in desserts and condiments. Hard Italian cheese comes in fourth.

Using the real thing

Formulating with real cheese plays into today’s simple label trend. What exactly is real cheese? It is any standardized cheese, natural or pasteurized. In Title 21 Part 133 of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), the Food and Drug Administration defines cheese. It also outlines the requirements for more than 90 standardized cheeses, including natural varieties such as cheddar and mozzarella, as well as pasteurized cheeses such as cold-pack and process.

Made from only four ingredients (cultures, enzymes, milk and salt), natural cheeses are living systems that evolve over time in terms of flavor and texture. Pasteurized cheeses, on the other hand, are not. This enables better control over functional properties.

Modern cheese-making technologies allow for cheeses — natural and pasteurized — to be tailored to meet specific compositions and application requirements. This includes such functional properties as restricted melt, enhanced flavor and controlled browning.

For many packaged food marketers, making a “made with real cheese” claim adds value to a product. However, there are many options to make this claim. For example, to state on a package label that a frozen burrito is made with real cheddar cheese it must contain standardized cheddar cheese.

However, if the label simply says made with real cheese, the cheese may be a processed version of cheddar or even a modified version of standardized cheddar, which is allowed when variables such as fat or sodium are reduced. A made with real cheese declaration also allows for the inclusion of imitation cheese along with any standardized cheese. This helps keep costs down, but of course, adds to the ingredient legend.

The opposite of imitation

A significant trend in the market for cheese ingredients is an increased demand for organic certification.

“Bulk organic cheese for use as an ingredient is in demand,” said Jack Masson, president, Lelio and Sons, Los Angeles. “This is being driven by the fresh and frozen prepared foods offered through specialty and natural food stores, such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.”

In particular, there is a real need for organic cheddar and organic Monterey Jack cheeses, as these are used in many Hispanic-themed prepared foods offered through the retailers.

“If these cheeses are somewhat aged, economics becomes an issue,” Mr. Masson said. “It is already expensive to source organic milk and segregate organic cheese, but then when storage for aging enters the picture, this further raises the cost of these cheeses. This is why it is nearly impossible to source bulk organic Swiss cheese. But there is demand from the industry.”

Ron Buholzer, president and Wisconsin master cheese-maker with Klondike Cheese Co., Monroe, Wis., concurs that there is growing demand for organic cheese.

“For a while, the requests for organic ingredient cheese had slowed, but they have really picked up,” Mr. Buholzer said.

And the requests are becoming more particular. For example, some companies want lower sodium or lower fat cheeses.

The demand for Greek yogurt trend is driving the popularity of feta cheese, another product of Greek origin, with more prepared foods featuring feta cheese in the formulation.

“This is true for both organic and regular feta cheese,” Mr. Buholzer said. “We get requests for specific cube size. For example, when feta is added to salad dressing, the cubes must be relatively small to not clog the fillers. On a frozen entree, the cubes are usually a bit larger to ensure piece identity.”

Another trend in the packaged foods category is proprietary flavors.

“Formulators of prepared foods typically come to us when they are trying to create a signature cheese flavor profile in their products,” said Robert McManus, vice-president of food service and ingredient sales for the Sartori Co., Plymouth, Wis. “We will work with them to create blends of distinctly flavored specialty cheese tailored to their application.

“For example, we make a proprietary specialty cheese called MontAmoré. It is a sweet, creamy and fruity cheese that finishes with a playful, tangy bite. Blended with other cheeses, it adds a special edge.”

Most of the time the cheeses in a blend are not disclosed in order to maintain this edge. Other times, a manufacturer may recognize the value in calling the cheese out.

For example, this past fall, Noodles & Co., Bloomfield, Colo., introduced a number of new menu items, including Alfredo MontAmoré. The dish is spaghetti noodles tossed with a four cheese blend, roasted mushrooms and grape tomatoes, spinach and Parmesan chicken. It is topped with a sprinkle of MontAmoré cheese, parsley and fresh cracked pepper. On the menu, the company explains that MontAmoré cheese was inspired by Piave (an Italian cheese) and that it is made with milk that comes directly from independently owned, Sartori patron farmers all of which are located within 50 miles of Sartori.

“Our BellaVitano line is also very useful for creating signature flavor profiles,” Mr. McManus said. “The sweet, nutty, fruity flavors of BellaVitano complement other cheeses. We also finish BellaVitano with everything from hand-rubbed espresso to black pepper to raspberry tart ale, adding further flavor complexity.”

The possibilities are endless.

Alternative cheesy options

As one may imagine, many of the top-10 cheese applications require non-standardized and non-traditional forms of cheese for performance and functionality. After all, it’s not like a pasta sauce mix can be made with shredded cheddar cheese. Further, not all food brands can economically use all real standardized cheese.

In order to add that highly desirable cheesy flavor to more types of foods, cheese ingredient suppliers offer a variety of options. This includes powders, pastes and even concentrated sauces. The ingredients may be made with real cheese, stating that claim on packages, or they can be imitation.

There’s also a range of cheese-flavored inclusions that allow for the flavor of cheese to be added to some otherwise unlikely applications, such as products that encounter high heat. Such temperatures cause most standardized cheese to melt and run out of the product. The inclusions mimic the appearance, flavor and performance of real cheese pieces. They may be made with real cheese, while others may be designed to be kosher pareve or kosher dairy.

There are also cost-effective, functional ingredient solutions for making processed and analog cheese ingredients. The ingredients may be customized to help food manufacturers achieve specific texture and functional characteristics.

With so many options to add cheese flavor to everyday foods, it’s no wonder cheesy foods are found in almost every aisle of every supermarket.