Cheese ingredient insight

by Donna Berry
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With more than 1,400 natural cheese varieties cataloged in the World Cheese Exchange Database, the opportunities are plentiful when trying to add a cheese flavor profile to almost all types of foods — from bread and snack foods to sauces and dressings to entrees and side dishes. Cheese ingredients not only add flavor and provide visual enhancement, depending on the ingredient, they may often positively impact texture and mouthfeel, while at the same time contribute nutritionally. Some cheese ingredients even are designed to provide an economical advantage over other forms.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show that per capita consumption of natural cheese continues to grow. During the 25-year span from 1985 to 2010, per capita consumption increased almost 50%, to 33.3 lbs in 2010 from 22.6 lbs in 1985. Most of the growth is attributed to the use of cheese in food applications — at home, in food service and in commercial manufacturing.

Cheese adds value, variety and flavor to other foods, and today’s educated consumer recognizes this. In response, consumers are attracted to foods with a variety of cheese profiles, not just the basic cheddar and mozzarella of yesteryear.

But because natural cheeses are living, dynamic systems, using the “real” thing is not always an option in food manufacturing. Advanced ingredient technologies allow for the production of specialty cheese ingredients that may withstand the rigors of food processing and shelf life in order to create a point of differentiation in what remains an intensely competitive consumer packaged goods marketplace.

Natural cheeses, which are typically made from only four ingredients (cultures, enzymes, milk and salt) and have standards of identity listed in the Code of Federal Regulations, usually serve as the base material for most cheese ingredients, including “process cheese.” The term process cheese represents a range of products with specific standards and allowable ingredients.

Process cheeses start by blending a minimum amount of specified natural cheese with other ingredients, including those with emulsifying properties. This blending is followed by a high-heat treatment, which deactivates the enzymes and cultures. The process cheese is now no longer living, and its functionality is more readily controlled. There are also many cheese ingredients that are non-standardized, which allows for manipulation in order to achieve a desired performance.

For both standardized process cheese and non-standardized cheese ingred-ients, it is possible to create a product that has functional attributes such as restricted melt, enhanced flavor, con-trolled browning and more. Forms range from powders to nuggets to pastes to slurries to bits and pieces.

Most highly functional cheese ingredients would not be consumed alone. They have been designed to deliver flavor impact and to be used in specific food applications, such as part of a topical seasoning for chips, as a base in Alfredo sauce, as a particulate in bagels or as a filling in a hand-held sandwich.
Cheese ingredient options vary by the application and shelf life. Sometimes one form might be used alone, as the sole characterizing cheese flavor in a food application, while other times multiple forms will be used for enhanced sensory appeal and/or cost savings.

Learning the lexicon

With an increasing number of consumers willing to explore ethnic, specialty and extreme cheese flavors in everyday foods, product formulators recognized the need to develop a common language that defines and describes critical cheese characteristics. This allows for cheese ingredient manufacturers to manipulate the cheese ingredient’s performance through processing and other ingred-ients, while not losing focus of the target flavor profile.

It has only been during the past 15 years that sensory scientists have pro-vided flavorists with the communication tools needed to break down recognized cheese flavors into compounds that may be used alone or manipulated and combined with other compounds for signature cheese ingredients. MaryAnne Drake, professor of sensory analysis and flavor chemistry at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and director of the Sensory Analysis Center at N.C. State, is globally recognized for her efforts in unlocking this key to better understanding the compounds that constitute cheese and other dairy flavors.

“Linking cheese flavor re-search to production tech-nology is the key to helping the food industry master and control the factors that influence cheese flavor,” Dr. Drake said. “Our challenge is to integrate precise analytical measurement tools with the psychology and communication of language descriptors.”

Dr. Drake and her colleagues are responsible for developing the first defined and anchored sensory language or lexicon for cheddar cheese. Introduced in 2000, the lexicon was generated from the analysis of 220 cheddar cheeses and 70 other cheeses representing age, fat content and geographical regions.
“Trained panelists helped est-ablish the language of qualitative and quantitative terms, each with intensity anchors and specific references for its flavor definition,” she said.

Flavor terminology like “fruity,” “diacetyl” and “earthy” were tied to specific esters, microflora and aromatics — establishing many corre-sponding concentration and intensity relationships and allowing for formulation of cheese ingredients that taste like their characterizing natural counterpart.

Cheese ingredient innovations

The most basic of cheese ingredients are cheese powders and enzyme-modified cheeses (E.M.C.). The former usually contains some dried natural cheese, but not always, and will be enhanced with flavors and colors — natural and/or artificial — and other ingredients. Quality is quite varied, which means price is, too.

The latter is basically cheese curd that has been treated with enzymes to produce a concentrated cheese flavor ingredient. The E.M.C. production typically involves blending freshly made cheese curd, sometimes with other ingredients such as other sources of fat and protein, with water and emulsifying salts, to form a paste. The paste is then pasteurized to inactivate inherent microorganisms and enzymes. Then a blend of specific enzymes is added, including proteinases, peptidases and lipases, sometimes with some starter organisms. The paste gets incubated for a few days, followed by a final heat treatment to prevent additional breakdown by the enzymes and cultures. The E.M.C.s vary in cheese flavor strength, with most in the range of 15 to 30 times the flavor intensity of the original natural cheese curd.

A recently introduced option comes from DairiConcepts L.P., Springfield, Mo. The company developed a line of flavor-amplified, paste-like dairy ingredients made from real dairy products. The line includes an extensive offering of cheese varieties, including three basics — American, blue and cheddar — as well as a variety of ethnic cheeses, such as asiago, cotija, mozzarella, Parmesan and Swiss. Using a building block technology of layering flavors and consistencies, the company may create cheese concentrates ranging in flavor intensities of 3 to 20 times the natural flavor of the raw starting material, while also delivering a similar body, texture and mouthfeel.

“Our technology allows us to work closely with formulators to define a flavor profile they want to achieve in the finished product, and we then can customize a cheese concentrate that meets their expectations,” said Marcia Rauwerdink, director of business development. “The concentrate delivers the same flavor strength and profile every time.

“Further, the concentrates deliver maximum cheese flavor at a reduced use level, as compared to achieving the same flavor profile with standard natural cheese or many other cheese ingredients. Many of the concentrates are made from natural cheeses produced in our own manufacturing facilities, and thus we have the ability to control for various sensory attributes.”

Some manufacturers of frozen prepared meals are finding it easiest to use individually quick frozen (I.Q.F.) cheese sauce pellets that may be customized for specific applications. The pellets are simply added to the bag or tray with the meal’s other components.

“Our I.Q.F. cheese sauce pellets are designed to meet processors’ precise specifications,” says Glenda Murray, development chef at Sargento Food Ingredients, Plymouth, Wis. “Such I.Q.F. cheese sauce pellets are typically customized with a unique taste profile and texture for specific applications, so that they reconstitute quickly and easily in the meal, creating a smooth sauce that provides ample coverage.”

Finally, another innovation that seems to be gaining traction in certain applications, in particular, baked, grain-based foods, is cheese-flavored, lipid-based nuggets. The ingredients provide enhanced flavor and aroma, as well as visual appeal, but do not melt and run out of the product like other cheese ingredients. They may create bursts in dough, or provide discrete piece identity.

As suppliers continue to explore new cheese ingredient technologies, expect to see more of those 1,400 natural cheese varieties showing up in the most unexpected applications.

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