Consumers are demanding more from their dairy product favorites—as in more clean labels, value-added ingredients, portability and sugar reduction. It’s fascinating then, to see these themes play out across leading categories of cheese, cultured products, ice cream and milk. 

As consumers continue to seek out food with clean ingredients, protein on the go, freshness and convenience, cheese is the answer to many of those needs. Last year saw cheese processors double down on portable snack offerings—from cheese bites to snack packs. Hybrid options (think cheese paired with lunch meats, nuts, fruit and pretzels) are popping up everywhere. Portion control and portability are the keys.

There have been a slew of innovative new snack and convenience cheese products to hit stores over the past year.

Finlandia Cheese, Parsippany, N.J., introduced SnackTime, a premium aged and imported cheese stick line. The non-GMO cheese sticks are available in three flavors: Gouda, Cheddar & Gruyere, and Gouda & Sharp Parmesan. Meanwhile, BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay, Wis., added Parmesan cheese to its snacking cheese line. Eight individually wrapped pieces are packaged in a bag for portion control. The cheese contains 80 calories and 7g of protein per 0.75oz serving.

In snack pack news, Horizon Organic, a brand of DanoneWave, Broomfield, Colo., launched Good & Go packs that feature cheese paired with nuts, dried fruit or pretzels. They’re sold in 1.26oz packages. The Cheddar and Pretzels variety contains 6g of protein per pack. Meanwhile, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz launched Snack Trios, which feature cheese, dark chocolate and sweet fruit. A 1.5oz pack contains 4g of protein.

And Sargento Foods, Plymouth, Wis., expanded its Balanced Breaks brand (its 1.5oz snack packs) with the release of a sweet line. The snack combines natural cheese with sweet ingredients such as dried fruits and dark chocolate. It comes in four varieties, including Monterey Jack cheese, dried cranberries and dark chocolate-coated peanuts.

The “craft movement” is slowly emerging in cheese, according to “Cheese Global Annual Review 2017,” a publication from global market research firm Mintel. As noted in Mintel’s report, “cheeses positioned as (hand) crafted meet consumers’ appetite to know more about products, their makers and the inspiration behind brands. Craft brands of food and drink are associated with high-quality ingredients, small-scale production, and time and care taken in production.”

Capturing both convenience and bold flavors, Cheese Fusions, a Norseland Cheese brand, is a flavored cheese snack sold in individual pouches. The cheese comes in four flavor varieties, including Sour Cream and Onion Monterey Jack; Buffalo Monterey Jack and Smoked Chipotle Cheddar. Emmi Roth added a new flavor in its Roth line of cheeses from Wisconsin: Sriracha Gouda. The company said the cheese merges the mild flavor of Roth’s Dutch-style Gouda with spicy, tangy-sweet and savory Sriracha spices.

Finlandia SnackTime Cheese Snacks

Win-Win Formula: Snack appeal plus premium flavor.

Saputo also launched some unique flavors under its Great Midwest brand: a Pesto Jack (Monterey Jack with garlic and basil pesto) in 8oz rounds; and Mediterranean Cheddar (a blend of sun dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and spices) in 7oz bars.

Other cheese brands appealed to consumers’ desire for more premium and organic options. One of those was Emmi Roth, which introduced Roth Organics, a new collection of four cheeses made with organic milk. The line features its Grand Cru Original, Van Gogh Gouda, Havarti and Sharp Cheddar.


Culture Club

Now that the Greek yogurt craze has settled, plenty of other yogurt styles and concepts are vying for share of consumers’ stomachs. The biggest themes showing up are protein, whole milk, lower sugar, clean labels and convenience. Also of interest are probiotics, as well as grass-fed and lactose-free formulations.

Siggi’s, maker of Icelandic-style yogurt, added Triple Cream yogurts made with 9% milkfat to its line.

Lifeway Foods, Morton Grove, Ill., focuses a lot of attention on probiotics, from its kefir to its ProBugs line. ProBugs includes squeezable pouches of whole-milk kefir and Bites, freeze-dried kefir melts for children 9 months and older. Each 4oz pouch or serving of bites has 10 live and active probiotic cultures.

Lifeway also added several on-the-go options to its portfolio, including more 8oz bottles of kefir, which now have packaging to match the 32oz bottles. It also strained its drinkable kefir into 5.3oz cups for a spoonable snack. The kefir comes in a variety of flavors, in organic and conventional options. In addition, the company’s farmer cheese, which was available only as a multi-serve item, now comes blended with real fruit in single-serve cups.

DanoneWave had several launches in these areas in 2017, including Activia Lactose-Free and non-dairy Silk almond milk yogurt. On the organic side, it introduced a whole-milk line of Horizon Organic yogurt cups and tubs. And its Wallaby Organic brand added new seasonal pumpkin Greek yogurt and whole-milk Greek yogurt varieties. 

Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore., revamped its Good & Creamy yogurts to contain 9g of protein per 6oz serving. It also launched Farmstyle Whole Milk Greek in a variety of unique flavors, including Strawberry Black Currant, Raspberry Fig and Meyer Lemon Pear.

Flavor varieties that include savory, spicy/sweet flavor combinations and unique sidecar inclusions are also pushing category innovation.

This summer, noosa expanded its portfolio with noosa mates, mix-in-style yogurts that are paired with toppings like crunchy granolas, roasted nuts, pretzels and dark chocolate. Flavor varieties include Honey Cranberry Almond (granola, cranberries, roasted almonds and pepitas) and Honey Pretzel Peanut and Maple Ginger (granola, gingersnap streusel and candied ginger). The packaging features mix-ins in a separate clear cup on top of the yogurt.

Norwich, N.Y.-based Chobani, another company that focuses a lot on flavor development, added several varieties to its popular Flip line (yogurt with a side compartment for inclusions). Some of those flavors include Cinnamon Bun Fun (cinnamon low-fat yogurt with pastry crumbles, caramels and cinnamon roasted pecans), S’More S’Mores (vanilla low-fat yogurt with honey craham crackers, milk chocolate and toasted sugar bits) and breakfast-inspired varieties such as Sunrisin’ Raisin (raisin brown sugar nonfat yogurt with bran flakes, walnuts and honey praline pumpkin seeds).

As mentioned, drinkable varieties of yogurt, usually in the form of smoothies, continue to gain popularity across the category.

Stuyvesant, N.Y.-based Maple Hill Creamery added coffee, strawberry and mango peach flavors to its whole-milk 100% grass-fed drinkable yogurt line. The strawberry flavor contains 13g of protein per 12oz serving. And Siggi’s launched single-serve, whole-milk drinkable yogurts in three flavors: Vanilla, Strawberry and Blueberry. The strawberry flavor contains 8g of protein per 8oz serving.

Dreaming Cow, Pavo, Ga., pushed the envelope further for drinkables by introducing Lush, a line of whole-milk, grass-fed yogurt drinks that contain a full serving of vegetables per 12oz bottle. Flavor varieties include Strawberry, Raspberry, Purple Carrot and Beet; and Peach, Ginger, Pumpkin and Carrot. A 12oz serving of the former variety contains 11g of protein. The drinks also contain probiotics.

Good Culture Cottage Cheese also recently updated its packaging to what it calls a more “modern design” and added organic Mango and all-natural Peach flavors to its lines. In addition, the company expanded its flavored cottage cheese line this past summer to include a natural range. Its original line is organic. The single-serve cottage cheeses are made with natural ingredients (no gums, preservatives, protein concentrates or artificial ingredients.) Both the organic and natural lines are made with whole milk from grass-fed cows.


Cold Comfort

Unlike some other food segments associated with indulgence, the ice cream subcategory doesn’t appear to be suffering from consumers’ collective health quest. In fact, only 11% of surveyed US consumers reported cutting back on ice cream or frozen treat consumption due to health concerns, stated global market research firm Mintel in its 2017 “Ice Cream — Global Annual Review.” And an almost equal share — 10% — said they were actively avoiding “healthy versions” because they are “meant to be treats.”

Ben & Jerry's Cereal Splashback
Lovin' Spoonful. "Cereal Splashback" line has nostalgic appeal.

Ice cream consumers might want to indulge, but that doesn’t mean they are ignoring what’s on the ingredient labels. There’s a strong push on consumers’ part for cleaner labels, noted Luconda Dager, president of Utica, Ohio-based Velvet Ice Cream Co.

“We’ve worked closely with our ingredient suppliers and have carefully selected ingredients with less or no processing,” she said. “Incorporating these simpler ingredients has made it possible for us to offer cleaner, easy-to-understand labels to our customers.”

The Velvet Ice Cream All Natural line of ice cream meshes well with the clean-label trend. Dager said the company recently added two new flavors to the line: Black Cherry Vanilla and Toasted Coconut Fudge.

Consumers also are clamoring for clean labels that go beyond natural, said Samantha Hill, director of growth for Snohomish, Wash.-headquartered Snoqualmie Ice Cream. They want options that are GMO-free, organic and more.

To meet demand here, Snoqualmie introduced a line of super-premium organic craft ice cream early in 2017. The French-style frozen custard comes in traditional flavors such as vanilla and chocolate, as well as more innovative flavors such as lavender.

The high-protein trend is also wielding an influence on ice cream processors’ new-product-development efforts.

Last summer, Halo Top Creamery, Los Angeles, added seven new flavors — including Pancakes & Waffles, Mocha Green Tea and more—to its Halo Top line of all-natural high-protein ice cream. The products also are low in sugar in calories, according to the company.

Around the same time, Breyers, part of Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever, debuted Breyers Delights high-protein ice cream pints. The low-fat, low-calorie products come in four flavors: Vanilla Bean, Chocolate, Cookies & Cream and Mint Chip, the company said.

No matter what benefits the label promises, the ice cream won’t enjoy a repeat purchase if the consumer is disappointed in its taste.

Pierre’s Ice Cream Co., Cleveland, is always looking to remain on the forefront here, noted Matt Thornicroft, assistant marketing and communications manager. Case in point: In recent years, the company has introduced a number of creative flavors — for example, it added chef-inspired Holé Molé to its Pierre’s Signature pint collection and Campfire Toasted S’mores to its Pierre’s Premium ice cream lineup.

One ice cream company that really flexed its creative flavor muscles last year was Wells Enterprises Inc., Le Mars, Iowa. The company’s iconic Bomb Pop brand added a banana fudge flavor, noted Adam Baumgartner, vice president of marketing. In addition, Wells debuted five new flavors in its Blue Bunny packaged ice cream lineup: PB ‘N Cones, Rockin’ Rocky Road, Monster Cookie Mash, Toffee Brownie Twist and Mint Cookie Crunch.
Some recent flavor innovations within the ice cream space leverage other popular food categories such as candy and cereal.

On the ice cream novelties side, Mars Ice Cream, Hackettstown, N.J., put a candy-filled spin on the traditional ice cream bar with the recent launch of its M&M’s Bar. Each ice cream bar is individually wrapped and features M&M’S candy pieces and reduced-fat vanilla ice cream, covered in milk chocolate. A spokesperson for Mars Ice Cream said the bar is a “great treat for families because it’s convenient and clean to eat.”

And Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s brings cereal inclusions—and a touch of cereal-sweetened-milk nostalgia—to consumers with its new Cereal Splashback ice cream flavors. Sold in the company’s scoop shops, the ice cream comes in Fruit Loot, Frozen Flakes and Cocoa Loco varieties. 

Originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Keep it Moo-ving.