Industry News

From cheddar to cotija, serving up fresh cheese insights

Renee Lee Wege
May 13, 2020

What’s the best stand-in when you can’t get a hug, but you need comfort? As social distancing continues to be the norm in most parts of the country, many are turning to comfort foods like pizza and burgers. And that’s not just conjecture – according to Datassential’s wealth of COVID-19 research, a third of consumers say they’re eating comfort foods more often since the onset of the pandemic (it’s the single most altered part of consumers’ daily eating routines, after cooking or baking more at home). Consumers are also turning to indulgent foods when they order from restaurants: pizza, burgers and sandwiches, meat entrees and pasta and noodle dishes are the top options Americans say they want from restaurants right now. As consumers look to these dishes for comfort, we’re highlighting some of Datassential’s recent research that covers a category that goes hand-in-hand with everything people are craving during the pandemic: cheese and dairy (after all, nearly 90% of consumers say cheese is important or very important to pizza, according to our latest Cheese & Dairy Keynote Report). 

Regional cheese is as gouda bet as any

There’s no denying that cheese is a hit – and that’s true with both consumers and operators. Over 80% of consumers love or like cheese according to Datassential FLAVOR, and in the Cheese & Dairy Keynote, we uncover that more than 90% of consumers eat mainstream cheeses like cheddar at least once a month. Cheese is a nearly universal offering for operators, and 60% say that adding cheese to an item helps it sell better. While ubiquitous cheeses like mozzarella or cheddar are well-loved by consumers, lesser-known cheeses are also gaining traction and could be a way for operators to differentiate their offerings. Gouda, manchego, cotija and paneer all are experiencing increases in consumption and could bring global flair to menus. As with other ingredients that may be less familiar to consumers, using what Datassential calls safe experimentation by leveraging ingredients in familiar and well-loved formats could help ease people into new tastes. Many operators are already offering regional cheeses alongside well-known ones in favorites like mac & cheese. Newk’s Eatery, based in Jackson, MS, for example, has a Five Cheese mac & cheese made with a combination of asiago, Vermont white cheddar, imported parmesan and Ammerländer Swiss cheeses; while they also have a Farmer’s Market Grilled Vegetable Sandwich that includes Belgium-made Maasdam Gouda.

Dear Dairy Diary

Along with a variety of insights on cheese, our report also includes an overview of traditional dairy products, such as yogurt and milk. As plant-based eating continues to trend too, we shed some light on dairy alternatives (according to our report, three out of four operators currently offer non-dairy milks, though they aren’t always specifically called out on menus). Though non-dairy milks, such as those made from nuts (think cleverly-named, macadamia-based brand Milkadamia), are often what consumers might think of in terms of plant-based dairy, the concept of alternative dairy has spread to other products too, such as cheese and yogurt. Although alternative dairy products could have appeal especially among those who abstain from eating or drinking traditional dairy, offering both could be the best way to incorporate non-dairy concepts into menus or product lines. In fact, according to our report, 9 out of 10 consumers who use non-dairy alternatives say they also continue to use traditional dairy products. In addition, in Datassential’s TIPS publication, our alternative cheese chapter showed that 64% of consumers don’t restrict their dairy intake, but still, 47% of consumers have tried vegan or non-dairy cheese or are interested in trying it, which shows there’s appeal regardless of specific diets.

Grating the way forward

Sure, familiar cheeses and dairy products can be comforting to consumers in the moment, but as the industry reopens in the coming months, consumers may be ready to get away from their typical at-home fare and try something new. Our report highlights a variety of trend-forward opportunities for both manufacturers and operators to capitalize on dairy trends, from menuing lesser-known cheeses like paneer to using mozzarella’s creamier cousin burrata on a sandwich to checking out cultured butter as a way to ride the wave of fermented foods. All that and more you’ll find in our full Cheese & Dairy Keynote Report, which showcases cheese and dairy preferences and eating habits from over 1,500 consumers as well as findings from over 300 operators.

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Renee Lee Wege is a senior publications manager at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. For more complimentary resources on COVID-19’s impact on the industry, visit datassential.com/coronavirus.

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