From crumbly and creamy to hard and flavoursome, the seemingly endless options available to cheese-lovers and flavour enthusiasts have been a dietary staple of many consumers for years.

But despite their delicious appeal, cheeses of all shapes and sizes have fallen out of favour in recent years amidst growing concerns about the fat content and negative health effects of the dairy delicacy.

This may be about to change, however, thanks to new scientific research that claims cheese to be one of nature’s 'naturally functional' whole foods, with no negatives either from fat or sodium content. As a result, increased consumer awareness about the health benefits of cheese is opening up opportunities for growth in countries where cheese consumption has been low.

According to a recent report by New Nutrition Business, reinventing cheese as a naturally healthy snack is the biggest growth opportunities for dairy companies.

Conscious Coupling

Fuelled in part by the rise of the health and wellbeing trend, consumers are marking a conscious effort to improve their diets and lifestyles. This is not always an easy task. As modern schedules grow more demanding, unconventional consumption occasions have become increasingly common. As a result, convenience has become a key feature for both manufacturers and on-the-go consumers.

This demand for healthy and convenient food products has created a number of opportunities for cheese brands. Fuelled in part by recent research into the health benefits of cheese and dairy products, the sector has fallen back into favour among health-conscious consumers, presenting manufacturers with an opening to target concerns. One way this is achieved is by combining cheese with food products that are widely understood to improve health and wellbeing, such as meat or fruit. According to global information and measurement company Nielson, fresh fruit was one of the fastest growing products in UK supermarkets during 2016, with analysis of electronic point of sale data revealing that shoppers spent £175.6m more on fresh fruit than in 2015. 

Manufacturers have already begun to explore the potential of pairing cheese with additional food products. Sargento Balanced Breaks effectively targeted this opportunity. As one of the most successful product launches in the US, with first year sales hitting $67m, the snack pack pairs cheese with fruit and nuts in a single offering, creating a valuable and appealing result that offers both the convenience of a snack and the naturally-nutritious properties of cheese.

To find out how cheese brands can tap into the snackification trend, we spoke to report co-author and senior market analyst at New Nutrition Business, Joana Maricato. She said: “[Pairing food products] is a trend that not only cheese but also non-cheese companies are investing in. For example, the beetroot company Love Beets launched a snack tray pairing cheese, beetroot and crackers.

“Pairing cheese with other foods adds nutritional value to the final product, justifies a higher pricing for consumers, allows product differentiation and offers an innovation for today’s consumers, who are always looking for new experiences and products to try.”

Dairy-free

Given that cheese products fall into the dairy category, it may come as a surprise that the dairy-free market has been spotlighted as a potential area of opportunity for brands. Over recent years, the 'free-from' market has experienced increases as health and well-being trends gain traction among consumers. According to market research company Mintel, the free-from market is forecast to reach £673 million in the UK by 2020.

Innovative dairy substitutes including soy and lactose-free cheese products have flourished over recent years. Amid growing concerns about the health effects of cheese, plant-based milk options such as almond and coconut brands have become popular alternatives, capitalising on the growing interest in digestive health by positioning products as easier to digest than dairy options.

While some manufacturers may view this growing market as a threat to the traditional cheese industry, Maricato sees opportunities for brands to address consumer concerns about dairy and digestive wellness.

Maricato explains: “Smart dairy companies acknowledge that non-dairy is a threat and an opportunity.

“There’s no reason why a dairy company can’t acquire a dairy alternative business or launch non-dairy products – some of them already did, like Lion in Australia, and they already manage them both separately without any issues for consumers. The key is to understand that these are two strategically independent segments."

Targeting the Trend

While the snackification trend presents a wealth of opportunity for cheese brands, to successfully revitalise the sector, manufacturers need to ensure that new snack products launches address the needs of consumers.

Developing smaller pack sizes and individual portions allows companies to target on-the-go snacking occasions, which can appeal to shoppers seeking convenient products that are easy-to-transport. According to Maricato, this will require investment into single-serve formats that are easy to eat, such as cubes or strings of cheese. The potential of these formats has already been showcased on the market, for example Spire Brands’ Moon Cheese snacks, which target a growing consumer need with dried pieces of Gouda, Cheddar, or Pepper Jack in a convenient pack.

Though convenience may be a driving trend in the sector, flavour and enjoyment should not be compromised to target new eating occasions. Investing in new and exciting combinations, such as pairing cheese with other snack products such as dried fruit or nuts, can help brands to achieve differentiation in the market and appeal to consumers by providing a positive eating experience.

Maricato adds: “Companies need to get inspired by what is happening with cheese and other dairy products like butter, and trends like snackification, protein and home-gourmet. For example, cottage cheese and quark cheese have already successfully connected to the key trends protein and snackification in markets like the US and the UK.”