Despite eating less than 10% of the world’s cheese, the Asian appetite for the dairy product is rapidly growing, with consumption expected to reach 1.65 million tonnes by 2020. While the current appetite for cheese may be most commonly limited to processed products such as slices or cubes, western markets are attempting to diversify and introduce more natural products into the region. Demand varies across the Asian nations; however there are definite areas of focus for exporters as the general trend shows a huge surge in popularity for a product which has not been a staple food in Southeast Asia.

A dairy dilemma

Undoubtedly part of the reason for the lack of cheese as a staple in Asia is the prevalence of lactose intolerance among the population, with the U.S. National Library of Medicine putting the figure at 90% among adults of East Asian descent and as high as 95% in certain areas. Attributable to various environmental factors, the result is that if looking for a fermented protein source, Asian producers are more likely to turn to soy.

Additionally, incidents such as the 2008 Chinese milk scandal – in which milk and infant formula were adulterated with the chemical melamine – have not done much to increase trust in dairy products. However cheese is seen as a safer product than milk due to it being more difficult to contaminate. This broad distrust of dairy is perhaps what lends itself to the strong demand for processed cheese rather than its more natural variants up until now.

A maturing market

The breaking market can be attributed to a few factors, chiefly increasing globalisation and the affluence of a growing middle class. Although processed cheese is currently dominant, in part due to the encroachment of Western fast food brands like Pizza Hut and McDonalds, it could be that the marketing of more artisanal cheese as a symbol of cultured taste and difference could lead to success.

There is certainly precedent, with red wine’s market placement as a symbol of modern sophistication seeing China overtake France as the world’s largest consumer in 2013. With cheese and coffee having undergone a similar market growth, it is possible that cheese’s slow start could lead to a rapid rise, particularly considering the gateway access that an increased presence of Western restaurants offers.

A familiar ingredient

Joana Maricato, senior market analyst at New Nutrition Business said: “Food service and in particular the pizza chains, have played a vital role in familiarising Asian people with cheese as an ingredient. This evolution has taken place over a 40-year period. Despite growing retail sales of cheese, foodservice still remains a key part of the market – for example, 60% of all cheese sold in Japan goes to foodservice.”

Cheese is clearly beginning to make an impact across the Asian continent but the challenge facing western producers looking to infiltrate the market is not just introduction but in shifting cultural attitude. While processed forms of the food are becoming steadily more popular, there is still a way to go in changing popular perception to accept ‘old world’ cheeses as a standard part of the diet.

New products

Leading the way for the new market are products such as Beston Pure Foods’ Japanese-style snack cubes. Reprocessing and flavouring Beston’s natural cheddar and gouda under the Kyubu brand, the cubes come in flavours such as strawberry, nacho and orange yoghurt. Already on shelves in Thailand and Singapore, the intention is that the processed product will gradually introduce people to the idea of more traditional cheese.

“It’s a bridge for a period to allow people to get a feel for some of the cheeses we can make but also we want to use it as a platform to give people the experience of eating the natural cheeses we make as well,” Beston Pure Foods general manager Daniel Raschella said.

With Japan accounting for almost 55% of Australian cheese exports in 2014-15, there is clearly a rapidly growing Asian market for products such as Beston’s. The challenge that lies ahead will be in transitioning from heavily processed products to more natural cheese flavours.