From baked goods to salad dressings, the flavor of cheese may be found in foods throughout the supermarket and on most menus. With more than 300 varieties of cheese readily sold in the United States, there’s a cheese flavor for every food.
“Food companies are increasingly leveraging the amazing variety of flavor profiles from cheese to make products stand out,” said Ron Heddleson, senior director of research and development, QualiTech, Chaska, Minn.
Denis Neville, general manager-CoreFX Ingredients, MCT Dairies Inc., Chicago, said, “Cheese is a premium food that contributes to the eating experience from a taste, texture, visual and aroma perspective. Its use as an ingredient in packaged foods and food service continues to grow as consumers strive for higher-quality eating experiences while also valuing their limited time on food preparation.”
Data from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (W.M.M.B.), Madison, Wis., show an increase in the number of new products with cheese as an ingredient.
“We saw an 11.4% increase in the introduction of new products in 2014 compared to 2013,” said Kirk Scott, director-retail programs.
Increased use was particularly apparent in crackers, main dishes, popcorn, ready meals, savory spreads and vegetables.
“We saw the most growth in new vegetable and popcorn products,” Mr. Scott said.
For example, cheese is being used in such frozen items as vegetables with cheese sauce and stuffed mushrooms and jalapeños.
Cheese always has been popular on popcorn, and this trend continues, often with an additional layer of flavor, said Marcia Rauwerdink, director of business development, DairiConcepts L.P., Springfield, Mo.
“Heat and spice blend well with many cheeses and taste great on popcorn,” she said. “We’ve combined cheese with varied seasonings, everything from chipotle to tikka masala.”
Allen Hendricks, vice-president of food service and education at the W.M.M.B., said, “Consumers have a better understanding of ethnic cuisines and cultures and their tastes have evolved and widened to include ethnic flavors, including ethnic cheeses.”
Formulating with cheese
The obvious way to add cheese flavor to prepared foods is to use real cheese ingredients, which allows for a “made with real cheese” claim, a statement with consumer appeal in today’s label-reading society. As product developers explore the addition of cheese to new food products, ingredient marketers are developing options to ensure full-flavor delivery. This often requires the use of flavor enhancers or potentiators, or unique functional forms.
“Real cheese, cream and butter do not have many cost-effective substitutes,” said Vicki Brewer, principal scientist, Land O’Lakes Ingredients, Arden Hills, Minn. “It is difficult to replace dairy and cheese while retaining the attributes that dairy is known for.”
Depending on the application, using cheese alone may be technically challenging from both a performance and sensory perspective.
“We offer cheese inclusions to deliver cheese content and intense cheese flavor, solving many processing issues that may be experienced when 100% cheese toppings or inclusions are used,” Mr. Heddleson said. “For example, bagels, breads, batters and breadings benefit from topical addition of such cheese inclusions. The inclusion format encapsulates cheese flavor and protects visual identity through abusive processes such as baking or frying, which can degrade cheese formats such as powders or shreds. We can provide customizable melt profiles to deliver ingredients that provide less sodium and fat than 100% cheese.”
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, Ellsworth, Wis., has started selling the crumbles from its cheese curds manufacturing process through the ingredient channel rather than selling them as barrel cheese for further processing.
“We learned that the composition of the curd makes it an ideal restricted-melt cheese inclusion in sausages, as well as other prepared foods,” said Tony Birkel, marketing and sales director. “So we now sell the curd crumbles in 5-lb bags to food manufacturers, as well as to food service operators.”
Agropur Ingredients, La Crosse, Wis., recently introduced a new technology designed to bring out the best cheese and other dairy sensory profiles in all types of foods. The technology involves isolating compounds from milk and concentrating them into an ingredient that provides the creaminess and delectability of cream but without the fat.
“The ingredient appears on statements as ‘dairy product solids,’ making it very clean label friendly,” said Jill Rippe, director of R.&D. “It can be used to enhance cheese flavor, for example, in coatings on snack foods.
“In our application labs, we have seen how the ingredient can assist in sodium reduction because of its flavor-potentiating abilities. This is especially true in bakery and snack products.”
The company developed a popcorn coating in cheddar and fiery hot flavors.
“The dairy product solids enhance flavor, allowing for a reduction in sodium compared to other coated popcorns,” Ms. Rippe said. “But even better, the ingredient balances flavor in high-protein powdered coatings. The high levels of protein desired in products providing weight management or muscle development and recovery can produce an undesirable astringent or bitter aftertaste; however, this technology is able to round off the flavor and smooth out the bitter notes.”
Exploring powders and concentrates
In addition to cheese powders being used on popcorn, as well as in shelf-stable packaged mixes, side dishes and meal kits, food manufacturers are starting to favor dry, stable cheeses for the manufacture of cheese ingredients for use in prepared and packaged foods, said Mr. Neville.
“It’s all about convenience and stability of both product and price,” he said.
Most cheese powders are made with real cheese, allowing for a “made with real cheese” claim.
“Often times, cheese ingredients are combined with other dairy ingredients such as whey, nonfat dry milk and whey protein concentrate to provide an economical, well-balanced cheese seasoning,” said Patricia Odom, a scientist at Land O’Lakes Ingredients.
As a blending and agglomeration service provider, Agropur Ingredients deals with modifying the solubility behavior of cheese powders.
“Agglomeration can assist with ensuring that a powder is soluble in a cold hydration environment in the manufacturing process or can instantly dissolve at the consumer stage,” said Gerry Buescher, technical services.
Ms. Brewer said, “In snacks, you have to get the flavor across in a small dose of seasoning (10% to 15%), so the seasonings have to be strong. In that case, it helps to add a natural flavor to boost the natural cheese.”
With snack foods, cheese ingredients may be applied by dusting, which is when the cheese seasoning is sprinkled on top of the snack. The other option is via oil slurry.
“This is where the cheese ingredient is mixed together with oil to form a thin sauce and then sprayed onto the snack,” Ms. Odom said.
The different application methods require different ingredients, processes and specifications. For some applications, cheese concentrates are the ingredient of choice.
“We use real butter, cream and cheese to make our concentrates,” said Roger Mullins, senior vice-president and chief operating officer, First Choice Ingredients, Germantown, Wis. “These are standardized ingredients that deliver consistent flavor, unlike the raw materials from which they are made.
“Any cheese flavor profile is possible. The concentrates can be used with cheese to enhance flavor or they can be used alone in all types of foods.”
Ms. Rauwerdink said, “With our concentrates, we work 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. Cheese concentrates deliver the same flavor strength and profile every time.”
With marketers positioning cheese as a high-protein snack, there’s been a great deal of interest in developing non-standardized cheeses in bold flavors, Mr. Mullins said.
“The concentrates can assist with keeping costs down while still delivering on flavor,” he said. “For example, cheese concentrates can be added to mozzarella curd prior to the stretcher or at the cooker in the case of pasteurized process cheese.”
Like with all food ingredients, there’s a growing trend in “cleaning up” the labels of cheese ingredients.
“There are a growing number of cheese powders and seasonings colored with naturally derived ingredients as opposed to FD&C colors,” Ms. Odom said. “Eliminating monosodium glutamate and lowering sodium levels is also very common.”
Non-bioengineered is a hot button throughout the food industry and cheese ingredients are no exception.
“Non-G.M.O. and organic cheese powders are in high demand and will continue to be,” Mr. Neville said. “The biggest challenge with these offerings is supply and getting costs in line.”
What constitutes as non-bioengineered cheese in the United States differs from other parts of the world.
“This is making it difficult to get non-G.M.O. cheeses onto the plates of Americans,” Mr. Neville said. “For example, MCT Dairies owns all the licenses to import Australian cheeses, which are all G.M.O.-free, as Australia is a G.M.O.-free country. The problem in the States is that food marketers believe the cheese must be certified by the Non-GMO Project to be labeled non-G.M.O. This is a grey area. We are trying to educate the industry that any food that comes from Australia is non-G.M.O., including cheese, as is or in powder form.”
As suppliers continue to invest in innovation, the flavors — and forms — of cheese ingredients, the marketplace will need to make room for more cheese-centric foods.