Friday, March 21, 2014

Clean Label Dairy Series: Opportunities in Process Cheese

Products like Cheez Whiz, Easy Cheese and Velveeta—all Kraft/Mondelez brands and actually quite yummy—are considered by many as being responsible for the bad rap that the term “process cheese” has among American consumers. All three products are often criticized for how little cheese they might contain.

I’m not here to debase these products, because I have been known on occasion to squeeze some Easy Cheese right into my mouth. And…my favorite childhood lunchbox sandwich was white bread with a thick slice of Velveeta loaf and smashed nacho cheese Doritoes…all washed down with a carton of chocolate milk.

I hope to remove the stigma of the term “process” as it relates to cheese. What most Americans don’t understand is that cheese terminology, including this term, is highly regulated in the United States, but not elsewhere. (This is not taking into consideration common food names. That’s an entire different conversation. For the U.S. perspective on why U.S. cheesemakers should be able to call feta cheese feta and parmesan cheese parmesan, visit HERE.)

The fact is, process cheese products can be clean label and natural, per definitions recognized by the industry. They are not “processed,” per the definition some consumers use interchangeably with “Frankenfoods” and laboratory experiments.

The beauty of process cheese is that it serves as a beautiful base for innovative dairy foods formulators to add layers and layer of flavors.

At IFT Wellness, which took place this week in Chicago, my friend Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation, Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands, shared this. “Process cheese is not flagged as such in most countries. In Europe, especially, such soft, spreadable cheeses are used as flavorful condiments in sandwiches. They are also used as dips and for snacking."

Process cheese technology allows for a great deal of flavor and texture innovation…something not typically possible with natural cheese, which is a living system.”

Process cheese products are also highly regarded by prepared foods manufacturers and foodservice professionals, as these cheeses typically provide superior meltability and improved versatility in a wide array of applications, as compared to natural cheeses.

The Code of Federal RegulationsMost natural cheeses, which are living systems that evolve over time in terms of flavor and texture, are made from only four ingredients: cultures, enzymes, milk and salt. In Title 21 Part 133 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), FDA legally defines cheese and outlines the requirements for more than 90 standardized cheeses, including natural varieties such as cheddar and mozzarella, as well as various process cheeses, including those that undergo heat treatment as well as those comminuted without the aid of heat.

Though natural cheeses can be and are used in food processing, more often than not, formulators rely on pasteurized cheeses. The heat treatment these cheeses undergo enables better control over functional properties. 

Pasteurized cheeses start out by blending a minimum amount of specified natural cheese with other ingredients, including those with emulsifying properties. The pasteurization (high-heat treatment) step deactivates the enzymes and cultures, which stops the cheese from changing.

As mentioned, the CFR provides standards for a number of pasteurized cheeses, but there are also many such cheeses that are non-standardized, allowing for additional ingredients and process modifications to meet finished product specifications. This includes functional properties such as restricted melt, enhanced flavor and controlled browning. Because of the ability to control functionality, most cheeses used in food processing tend to be pasteurized.

The CFR provides a number of standards for pasteurized cheese based on total cheese solids content. This includes pasteurized process cheese, pasteurized process cheese food and pasteurized process cheese spread. Cold-pack and club cheese are also considered by many as process cheeses. These products are comminuted without the aid of heat.

Process cheeses almost always requires the use of texturants and stabilizers. Clean-label native starches and select gums can assist with texture and melt management, without compromising key sensory attributes and consumers acceptance.

Noteworthy innovations
One of the most recent innovative U.S. introductions comes from BC-USA. Its Alouette Cheese, America’s number-one spreadable cheese brand, introduced four exciting flavors to its product line: Smoky Jalapeño, Flame-Roasted Red Peppers, Buffalo Cheddar and Wasabi Cheddar Soft Spreadable Cheeses.

“Today’s consumers are looking for unique, bold flavors that enhance their snacking and entertaining experiences,” says Jeff Magnuson, associate brand manager. “Alouette is dedicated to great flavor and our new cheeses deliver. These four cheeses will give consumers an exciting new experience while bringing big, fresh flavors to the deli section.”

The Smoky Jalapeño Soft Spreadable Cheese features a unique blend of jalapeños, cilantro, onion and grilled charcoal notes, while the Flame-Roasted Red Peppers Soft Spreadable Cheese offers a combination of savory roasted red peppers, garlic and spices with grilled charcoal notes. Both products are ideal for dipping with veggies, pretzels or for spreading on your favorite cracker.

Spicing up the cheddar lineup, Buffalo Cheddar and Wasabi Cheddar Soft Spreadable Cheeses both feature vibrant flavors of 12-month-aged cheddar with a punch of heat, making them perfect for entertaining dips or for any-time snacking.

Another innovative process cheese concept debuts under the Président brand. New Pepper Medley Gourmet Cheese is made according to a traditional European recipe that blends fresh milk and cream with a variety of peppers and other ingredients to produce an easy-to-spread creamy cheese. The product retails in a 5.2-ounce resealable pack.

Look what is going on in Europe. Miree Frischkäsezubereitung Karotte-Ingwer translates to a fresh cheese with carrot and ginger. Think bread spread. Imagine serving a dollop as a garnish in a bowl of chicken dumpling soup.

Jermi Kasewerk GmbH recently introduced a cream cheese pate for the deli or cheese department. Consumers get a slice cut to order. The spreadable cheese comes in a variety of alternate flavored layers, including layers based on herbs, peppers and tomatoes.

The company also offers packaged cream cheese rolls. These spreads include a swirl of flavor. Varieties are: Herbs, Red Pepper, Pepper, Pineapple & Almond, and Salmon with Dill.

Eru has been a leading Dutch producer of process cheese since 1824. The company shows us just how innovative this category can be.  Its lineup includes everything from basic soft cheese spreads, to those enhanced with yogurt, lower in sodium or made with premium cheeses such as brie and bleu.

The company even puts cheese in a tube, a convenient form for consumers on the go.

Finally, process cheese manufacturing allows for the formation of interesting shapes and figures, as the cheese starts out in a molten form that easily pours into molds.

This Hello Kitty concept comes from Holland's Anker Cheese. The company has two different Hello Kitty figures...but the options are infinite. 

As a high-protein, convenient, on-the-go snack, process cheese complements today’s consumers’ health and wellness regime. With the right choice of ingredients, “process” does not need to be “processed.”

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