Scottish cheese experts have inadvertently given the thumbs up to a half-fat hard cheese.

They awarded third prize to the diet cheese at the Royal Highland Show last month, after it was entered anonymously alongside full-fat competitors such as Red Leicester and Double Gloucester.

Manufacturer The Cheese Company, which is owned by dairy co-operative Milk Link, put the win down to a unique technique developed at its Lockerbie creamery. It reckons the category may be on the verge of the big time after coming close to plugging the taste gap between half and full-fat cheese.

"The result showed that the taste and texture of half-fat hard cheeses are improving all the time," said Craig Dillon, customer marketing manager. "We need to get these right in order for the category to grow, and we believe that there is a huge market. People want to buy low-fat cheeses.

"The soft white cheese market has managed to develop recipes in a light format that are a close match to their full-fat cheese partners. But in the hard cheese category, the taste trade-off has been too great - until now."

Simply named half-fat cheese, the bronze medal winner retails as Marks & Spencer own-label cheese in mature and medium portions of 250g, which sell for £6.99 and £6.39/kg respectively. It is also available grated in pouches or sliced.

M&S helped The Cheese Company to develop the half-fat product, but it is now looking for new outlets and is negotiating with some of the other major multiples over listings.

It is hoping to cream off a larger share of the half-fat cheese market, which is said to be worth £200m a year and growing at just above the category average of 4%.

The product is also being sold into foodservice and as an ingredient for manufacturers.

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