Friday, July 18, 2014

Cheese Trends: Portion Packs for Back-to-School…and Beyond

Though most of the U.S. is still waiting for the summer heat up (Chicago’s Lake Michigan just reached 50F this week), retailers are already marketing back packs, pencils and uniforms for back to school. Foods for lunchboxes and after school activities will soon be specially merchandised in supermarkets. Make sure your cheese snacks are part of the excitement.

Cheese Snacks in Schools
On July 1, 2014, USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards went into effect. Published last year, these are science-based mandatory guidelines for all foods and beverages sold to students during the school day. U.S. cheese marketers should be working closely with school foodservice providers to ensure that cheese snacks--mainly string mozzarella cheese, but others are possible—qualify as a “smart snack” and will be sold in vending machines, school stores, snack carts and a la carte lines come this September.

For more information on Smart Snacks in School, link HERE.

You can determine if your snack is a Smart Snack using the Alliance for a Healthier Generation Smart Snacks Product Calculator. This calculator has been determined by the USDA, Food and Nutrition Service to be accurate in assessing product compliance with the federal requirements for Smart Snacks in Schools. The calculator can be used on all food and beverages. You can access it HERE.

If you market beverages to schools, you may want to read “Lighter back-to-school beverages,” to learn about the new calorie restrictions. The article focuses on innovative sweetening solutions to keep calorie counts compliant with the new regulations. You can access the article HERE.

Snacking TrendsIn addition to selling cheese snacks in schools and packaging them for lunchboxes, single-serve portion packs of cheese make great sense for parents to keep on hand at home—for kids and adults. After all, snacking is now about half of all eating occasions, according to findings in the report “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors” from The Hartman Group Inc.”

Rather than a treat or bridge between meals, snacking has become a routine part of daily eating habits. Consumers want their snacking to be as healthy as their meals, and cheese, a source of quality protein and natural calcium, makes for the perfect snacking food. Interestingly, according to the report, early morning snacking is an emerging opportunity space for food and beverage companies, retailers and restaurants. Cheese has long complemented this day part…on a bagel, with eggs or all by itself.

According to The Hartman Group, consumer eating behavior continues to change and evolve in relation to shifts in lifestyle dictated by any combination of factors: demands of work, commuting to and from work, raising families, social interaction, holidays, kids’ after-school and weekend activities. Given these factors, traditional views of mealtime can pretty much be thrown out the window. The imprint of these dynamic cultural changes is the blurring of the boundaries between “snack” and “meal,” with snacks being less of a break from healthy eating and more a continuation of it.

This report explores the cultural and psychological drivers lying beneath the emerging new eating landscape and dives deep into three occasions having the most impact in the food industry. They are:
  • Immediate Consumption represents 15% of eating occasions, and they’re not just on-the-go snacks.  About two-thirds (65%) of immediate consumption occasions that are not going to restaurants take place at home.
  • Alone Eating is not simply a result of more people living alone; it’s about how they’re living. About half (47%) of eating occasions are now alone. Eating alone is no longer about being lonely; it’s just a different way to experience food: 43% enjoy eating alone as a way to catch up on other activities.
  • Snacking represents 50% of eating occasions, with 80% taking place at home. Snacks are bound by fewer rules than meals. However, as consumers expect them to do more for them than ever—in terms of the physical, emotional, social and cultural experiences they offer—the lines between meals and snack are blurring. Cheese is a perfect snack.

The report notes what consumers want more of is fairly basic:
  • Less processed food
  • In smaller-sized packages
  • That can be eaten on the go
These attributes help address their needs in the three major eating categories. Cheese can be all three.

Cheese Trends
Today’s consumers, children and adults alike, are more willing than ever before to explore new flavors and forms of common foods. This includes cheese.

According to Cheese: Natural and Specialty Cheese in the U.S. and Global Markets, 5th Edition, a recent report by market research publisher Packaged Facts, retail dollar sales in the $16 billion natural and specialty cheese market are forecast to grow by a compound annual growth rate of 4% during 2014 to 2018.

“The broadening of the American palette beyond traditional favorites--cheddar and mozzarella--is driving growth of higher priced specialty and ethnic cheeses,” says Packaged Facts Research Director David Sprinkle. “Consumers are generally looking for products that are more indulgent, with new tastes and experiences, or healthier, more nutritious indulgences that still taste good.”

On the indulgent side, flavors of some newly launched cheeses continue to be more robust, with smoky, peppery and gourmet varieties most prevalent. On the health side, marketers have continued to promote cheese as fundamentally nutritious and good tasting, despite its high fat content. Sodium as well as fat content are challenges to growth, and marketers have been addressing consumer health and diet concerns with better-tasting reduced salt and fat cheeses, and cheeses made from healthier milk. Various recent healthier, better-for-you cheese launches address other needs and desires such as low lactose/lactose free and organic ingredients.

Cheese sales have also benefitted from the snacking trend. Marketers are introducing products that cater to hectic, busy consumers looking for convenience in the form of products that are easy to use and store while also good for on-the-go consumption. These and other products also address the needs of the growing single or dual household segment that wants smaller sizes that are easier and more affordable to purchase and consume. Meanwhile, moms perhaps are the real heroes when purchasing cheese products, as they drive sales of snack-friendly forms such as string/stick cheese given to their kids. For more information on this report, link HERE.

The Specialty Cheese CategoryBefore we explore some recently introduced innovative snacking cheeses, accolades go to Wisconsin cheesemakers who produced 640 million pounds of specialty cheese in 2013, an increase of 29 million pounds over 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. Specialty cheese now accounts for 22% of Wisconsin’s total cheese production. Of the state’s 126 cheese plants, 93 manufactured at least one type of specialty cheese during 2013. Feta continued its steady increase, accounting for the largest share of specialty cheese production at 13% of the total.  Other growing varieties include Hispanic types, gorgonzola, asiago, specialty cheddar and specialty colby. All of these can be made into single-serve portion packs for easier snacking.

“The specialty growth is an indicator of the state’s historic commitment to quality and diversity in the cheese industry,” says James Robson, CEO, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “Specialty cheeses continue to be responsible for the growth in the total cheese category over recent years, and Wisconsin’s artisan and specialty types have received a growing number of awards in domestic and international competitions, a tribute to the excellence of our state’s cheesemakers.”

Specialty cheese is defined as a value-added product that commands a premium price. The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute also describes specialty products as having one or more unique qualities, which include exotic origin, particular processing or design, limited supply, unusual application or use and extraordinary packaging or channel of sale. Wisconsin is the No. 1 producer of specialty cheese in the U.S., crafting 46% of the nation’s total specialty cheese. For more information about Wisconsin Cheese, link HERE.

Seven Recent Innovations from Wisconsin

One of the most innovative new cheeses to hit the marketplace comes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Cow Candy was created by cheese industry veteran Danyel O’Connor. Inspired by her son, nieces and nephews, she wanted to introduce cheese snacks to kids in a playful and delicious way. The result is a colorful snack offered in whimsical candy flavors without all of the sugar.

Made with all-natural Wisconsin cheese, Cow Candy tempts little taste buds with the fruity flavors of Fruit Punch, Grape, Green Apple, Orange and Strawberry. It’s a fun snacking option for kids of all ages. Each 0.75-ounce stick contains 75 calories and 5 grams of protein. They are available in 8-, 10- and 12-count retail packs and 16-count club store packs.

BelGioioso now offers Fresh Mozzarella Snacking Cheese in convenient 1-ounce packs containing three 0.33-ounce mozzarella balls sealed without water in an easy-open thermoform package adorned with a smile. The brand’s tagline is “A Smile with Every Bite.” The 1-ounce bags are sold in 6- and 16-count packs. Each 1-ounce bag contains 70 calories.

Schreiber Foods expands its American Heritage brand to now offer consumers a handy fridge pack containing 24 1-ounce string cheese for easy snacking. The packs tout the fact that a single string contains 7 grams of protein.

Burnett Dairy Cooperative’s new Everyday Artisan collection includes natural string cheese in Plain, Homestyle Ranch and Smoked varieties.

Omega Valley Farmers, a group of family-run dairy farms following a strict certification feeding program that results in milk naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids, has Nasonville Dairy turn that milk into omega-3 rich cheese. The farmers feed their cows a natural, land-based palatable combination of linseed and legumes mixed under controlled temperatures. This results in cheese where a 1-ounce serving contains 415 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids and 7 grams of protein. 

Cheese varieties are: Buffalo Jack, Chipotle Jack, Colby Jack, Garlic Herb Jack, Horseradish Chive Jack, Jalapeno Pepper Jack, Monterey Jack, Tomato Basil Jack, White Cheddar and Yellow Cheddar.

All varieties are available in 7-ounce chunks, with select flavors now offered in single-serve portion packs. Both 1.75- and 2-ounce portions debuted in late 2013. The company is currently rolling out convenient 24-packs of 1-ounce portions in shelf-ready merchandising boxes.

Old Fashioned Foods is getting in the snacking cheese business. At FMI Connect in June, the company showcased a line of pasteurized process cheese snack sticks in a range of flavors, including BBQ, Brewhaus Beer, Cheddar, Garden Veggie, Habanero, Jalapeno and Pepper Jack. The 0.8-ounce sticks are sold in packs of three.

This final product line is not necessarily single-serving portions, but each cheese could easily be consumed by an individual with the right bottle of wine and bread or crackers. New Sargento Tastings are specialty snack chunk cheeses that come in 3.25- to 3.95-ounce packs.

“Specialty cheeses are now accessible and conveniently located in the dairy aisle,” says Chris McCarthy, director of marketing for the Sargento Consumer Products Division. “With Sargento Tastings, everyone can explore a variety of specialty cheeses from a name they know and trust. They are perfect for a casual get-together or a satisfying solo snack.”

Sargento Tastings are cut from real block cheese and come in eight varieties to satisfy everybody’s palate, every day. Some of the cheeses are familiar, while others are completely new. They are: Aged Wisconsin Cheddar, Aged Vermont White Cheddar, Bruschetta Jack, Creamy Havarti, Fiesta Pepper Jack, Medium Asiago, New Zealander and Parmentino.

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