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DESPITE INFLATION, NATURAL CHEESE HOLDS UP

Bold flavors, snack-friendly options and plant-based varieties help the category outperform the rest of the refrigerated department.

Crystal Farms rolls out Gouda and Sharp Cheddar cheese sticks “for the adult palate.”

Like food and beverage segments across the supermarket, the natural cheese category registered a healthy dollar sales gain (+7.1% to $3.95 billion) during the 12 weeks ended March 26, according to Chicago-based market research firm Circana (circana.com), formerly IRI and The NPD Group. But unlike other segments, unit sales were down only 1.2% (versus 4.3% for the refrigerated department as a whole) as consumers hit hard by inflation looked elsewhere for savings. In fact, the crumbled and grated subcategories actually saw their unit sales rise. And they weren’t the only winners.

“Per Circana numbers, specialty cheeses, specifically burrata, cotija and queso blanco, have seen volume growth of 6% or more versus a year ago in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 29, 2023, says Suzanne Fanning, vp of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis. “We also continue to see pepper-flavored cheeses trending up.”

Consumers are looking for convenient ways to ampli-
fy the flavor of home-cooked meals, explains Andrew Westrich, marketing manager for Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis. “Flavored cheeses are growing faster than the overall cheese category with hot pepper, smoked and herbed cheeses leading the way…. These flavors align well with top mealtime cuisines in the typical American home.”

REAL CHEESE FLAVORS UP

Among the manufacturers looking to meet demand for flavorful, on-trend cheeses, Carr Valley Cheese Co., Baraboo, Wis., recently released four new varieties, including port-soaked Boozin Billy, Sante, Blue Spruce Blue and Black Truffle Blue. “We’ve seen increasing interest in flavored cheeses, particularly well-balanced flavored cheeses,” says Elle Fearing, national sales and marketing representative. “Additionally, Carr Valley is known for its cave-aged products, and Sante is an extension of that line.”

Chicago-based Babybel, part of the Bel Brands family, is also jumping on the flavor bandwagon with its first new flavor since 2014: a Monterey Jack variety of its snack-friendly Mini Babybel. (The company also reformulated its Mini Babybel Mozzarella, now even creamier and milder than the original). Both are made with 100% real cheese and offer more than 4 grams of protein per serving.

Another company chasing cheese snackers, Edina, Minn.-based Crystal Farms just released two new cheese stick products tailored to adult taste palates: Gouda and Sharp Cheddar. “We believe cheese sticks aren’t just for kids; they’re also healthy and delicious snacks for adults,” says Janell Lofton-Minta, vp of growth and marketing. “We surveyed adults who told us flavors like Gouda were missing from the snack cheese market.” She adds, “The new cheese sticks make great additions to charcuterie boards and cheese skewers and complement staples like mozzarella and pepper jack.”

Cabot Creamery, Waitsfield, Vt., also added a Gouda variety recently. “It’s a cheese that the American consumer isn’t quite as familiar with, but it’s a great snacking and ingredient cheese, and a nice complement to our flagship cheddar,” says senior vp of marketing Sarah Healy. The company also debuted a pimento cheese spread made with Vermont cheddar. “Consumers want food to be an experience, and pimento cheese is a longstanding Southern favorite. It’s a way to explore new horizons through food.”

NEW IN PREMIUM & SPECIALTY CHEESES

Organic Valley offers its best-selling Raw Sharp Cheddar in a new format: slices.

On the specialty cheese side of the category, Saputo Cheese USA, Lincolnshire, Ill., launched several new products under its Montchevre brand last summer, including a Hibiscus Berry Goat Cheese Log and a pair of versatile Topped Goat Cheeses (Roasted Red Pepper and Cranberry & Port), which incorporate a compote. “These items cater to consumers’ sweet and savory cravings, providing a variety of serving options,” says Jenny Englert, senior marketing manager.

“Four or five years ago, we saw a lot of interest in goat’s milk products from new-to-category consumers, but also unfamiliarity with the flavor profiles, pairings and usage applications of goat cheese. Today, there are more U.S. households than ever buying and consuming this soft, tangy cheese.”

Another specialty cheese category player, Fairfield,
N.J.-based Schuman Cheese, recently introduced Cello Extra Aged Copper Kettle cheese. “Our award-winning Cello Copper Kettle Parmesan is a longtime customer favorite and a staple of the Cello brand,” says Allison Schuman, chief revenue officer. “Building on that varietal, the Extra Aged Copper Kettle parmesan is aged for over 30 months for a bold, rich flavor.”

Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., is also building on the success of an existing product (its raw sharp cheddar blocks) with its new Raw Sharp Cheddar Slices. “Consumers are looking for convenience, flavor and clean labels in their cheeses, and our new slices deliver on all three needs,” says Westrich. “Launching our best-selling cheddar in a slice form makes a lot of sense and complements our existing line of slices, especially our American slices,” she adds. “Now …consumers have flavorful, organic options for [both of] their favorite sliced cheese varieties.”

PLANT-BASED CHEESE, PLEASE

Babybel introduces its first new flavor in 14 years with its Mini Babybel Monterey Jack.

Dollar sales of processed/imitation cheese, which includes plant-based varieties, jumped 4.6% to $773.83 million during the 12 weeks ended March 26, while unit sales fell 6.3%. Although plant-based brands are doing much better in the natural channel, which isn’t included in Circana’s report, the segment continues to make inroads in conventional supermarkets as well.

For example, Hackensack, N.J.-based Violife, which offers Mediterranean Style Grill Me!, Smoked Gouda, Mexican Shreds and Cream Cheese, among other dairy-free products, expanded its line to 2,000 Walmart locations in 2022.  “Dairy-free cheese is one of the few plant-based categories that continue to gain new households and show a strong potential for growth,” says Debra Yoo, senior brand manager.

Another player in the dairy-free cheese space, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Seeductive Foods, recently launched plant-based marinated feta cheese. “There are only a handful of [plant-based] feta options on the market, all of which are made from highly processed ingredients such as coconut oil and potato starch,” says founder Meghan Barbera. “Our product is the only plant-based feta that is free of the Big Nine food allergens. We also use a unique blend of pumpkin and hemp seed milk to make our products.”

Category newcomer Armored Fresh, McLean, Va., is also expanding its plant-based cheese lineup. It recently launched almond milk-based American slices — a category first — that “melt perfectly on grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers,” according to founder and CEO Rudy Yoo. “They’re also great with a cold sandwich because our taste is comparable to real dairy cheese,” he adds. “Within the plant-based cheese market, the focus is on taste. The challenge is how we can replicate the exact flavor, taste and texture of dairy products.”

Plant-based cheese makers are also entering the snacking space. For example, GOOD PLANeT Foods, Bellevue, Wash., recently introduced Snack Packs that combine its plant-based cheese cubes with nuts and dried fruit. “Snacking has been a trend for years but consumers seeking plant-based offerings often are confined to simple carbs that do not satisfy,” says co-CEO Bart Adlam. “Our Snack Packs offer consumers a wholesome product that will satisfy their hunger.” He adds that the company plans to launch a “game-changing innovation” mid-year that will address the concerns of reluctant flexitarians and significantly boost the plant-based segment.

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