Widely available, easy to use, affordable and crammed full of nutrients, cheese is one of the heroes of British food production.
But that has not made it immune to criticism and recent years have seen it demonised by the health lobby for its saturated fat and salt content.
Cheddar has borne the brunt of both criticism and calls for change. Last December the Food Standards Agency decreed 25% of the variety should be reduced fat by 2015. The agency also consulted the industry about amending legislation to allow the 'Cheddar' designation to be applied to cheeses below a certain minimum fat content, which cannot currently be labelled as such.
The results of the consultation are yet to surface and a decision on redefining Cheddar has not been forthcoming. In the meantime, the FSA had before its remit was curtailed this autumn to cover just food safety been encouraging consumers to reduce consumption, telling them, for instance: "Make cheese go further by grating instead of slicing it. This can mean you use less. Healthy for you and your wallet!"
For suppliers, messages such as this mean one thing only reduced volumes. But, rather than sitting back and waiting for a potential slide in sales, manufacturers have continued prioritising the development of lower-fat variants. That way they hope to meet nutritional requirements without having to adjust sales targets.
With the FSA's nutritional remit now the responsibility of the Department of Health, if a 25% target is achieved the market for lighter Cheddar will be worth £330.5m [based on Kantar data for total Cheddar, 52w/e 5 Sep 2010]. At present, there is only one big brand in the sector Cathedral City Mature Lighter. Launched in February 2007 by Dairy Crest, it is currently worth £32m in retail sales [Kantar 52w/e 3 October 2010], but its position is increasingly threatened by the growth of rival lower-fat Cheddar brands and the emergence of new competitors.
Kerry Foods, for example, claims its Kerry LowLow launched in mainland UK in April last year has the potential to knock Cathedral City off the top spot and create a £150m brand by value within five years.
Given its success in its native Ireland, where it is the number two overall cheese brand, this may not be as far fetched as it might sound. UK listings in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, along with the launch of a major TV advertising push in October 2009, have already helped the brand to rack up £11.8m in sales [Nielsen MAT 23 October 2010].
Kelly Rafferty, marketing manager for dairy, believes it has the potential to be the second cheese brand overall in the UK, pointing to the butter and yoghurt categories where the top sellers, Lurpak and Müller, are conventional brands, but the second-placed brands, Flora and Activia, are healthy options. And Kerry will match its £7.5m 2010 marketing spend for LowLow in 2011, adds Rafferty.
Kerry isn't the only major manufacturer with its eyes on the prize. Milk Link is to start manufacturing I Can't Believe It's Not Cheddar a 30% less fat Cheddar under licence from Unilever (see box). The brand will target a wider audience than Cathedral City, according to Milk Link marketing director Hamish Renton, who believes it will appeal to younger female consumers.
Milk Link is coy about sales targets, but if ICBINC is successful in mimicking the performance of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, it should have a bright future. Sales of ICBINB stood at £55.4m in the year to 15 May 2010 [IRI]. Milk Link is not the first to take this route Kerry's Rafferty is convinced the success of LowLow cheese in Ireland was the result of the brand name being linked to an established low-fat spread.
But not all brands can hack it in the world of lower-fat cheeses. One high-profile casualty is Lactalis McLelland's Seriously Strong Cheddar Lighter. In the summer, the brand reassessed its range and ditched its Lighter variant, claiming it did not have a "clear fit" with the brand promise. Lactalis is reluctant to expand further on its decision but competitors support the view that lower-fat cheese was simply not a priority for the brand's loyal consumers.
Even those still in the game aren't finding it plain sailing. Paul Fraser, marketing director at Dairy Crest, admits the company made mistakes along the way with Cathedral City. "We launched in sky-blue packaging and, as one farmer said to me: 'That isn't a food colour, now is it lad?'
"The blue packaging reminded consumers they were eating a low-fat product. Reminding them that you're taking that pleasure away is just counterproductive." A 2008 overhaul saw burgundy packs replace the blue original.
Sometimes the product itself fails to grab consumers. Successful lower-fat cheeses tend to have achieved a reduction in fat content without compromising on texture or flavour, says Carl Ravenhall, managing director of Adams Foods. Prior to the launch of Cathedral City Mature Lighter in 2007, there had been a number of short-lived lower-fat cheeses, but some were so compromised on taste that only ultra-healthy consumers were interested in them. "The half-fat was a total compromise when it came to eating."
That's not to say that once the one third-less-fat market has been established as it looks set to become there isn't scope to look once again at even lower-fat cheeses, says Milk Link's Renton. "Within five years I think you will see the leading protagonists in 30%-less-fat Cheddar slogging it out in half-fat."
Wyke Farms is already gearing up for that. In September it rebranded and reformulated its Leskol Half Fat cheese brand (launched in 2006) as Super Light because shoppers were failing to grasp its USP. "It was seen as a little bit medical," Wyke Farms managing director Richard Clothier said at the time. With just £2m in sales value [Kantar 52w/e 13 June 2010] it may be a minnow compared with Cathedral City, but Clothier hopes the rebrand will result in a doubling of sales by mid-summer 2011. A deal with Waitrose took Super Light into 160 stores for the first time in November.
Once the lighter Cheddar market has been established, lighter cheeses may crop up in the territorial and Continental sectors. But Renton believes that, in the short term at least, the focus at Milk Link will stay on improving the quality of lower-fat Cheddars. "We need to fish where the big fish are and that's in Cheddar." Even within Cheddar, more can be done. Both Cathedral City Mature Lighter and LowLow use mature cheeses but Fraser alludes to opportunities in sub-categories, such as mild.
Activity does extend beyond Cheddar, with lighter versions of some soft cheeses such as Dairylea, The Laughing Cow and Philadelphia well established, and March seeing the launch of the first lighter variant by Primula (see box).
If lighter cheeses are to sell, quality is key, but getting the marketing message right is also crucial, says Dairy Crest's Fraser. Hence Cathedral City's avoidance of the term 'lower fat' in its press ads. They talk instead about taking out enough fat to make the product healthier, while making sure it "tastes like proper cheese should".
Retailers have also played a vital role in the growing success of the category. In the past, they tended to sell lower-fat cheeses in their own 'healthy corner', says Ravenhall. That is gradually changing as they begin to recognise their potential as a mainstream product. "What you're seeing is lighter cheese being merchandised alongside the standard product."
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block could turn out to be salt. While most producers are on track to reduce the sodium content of their cheeses in line with the FSA's 2012 targets, Cheddar manufacturers claim producing low-sodium cheeses is far more problematic than developing reduced-fat variants.
Fraser points out salt has an important role both in preserving the cheese and in the maturation process.
Currently, the best way to replace sodium is to switch it with potassium but the industry doesn't know enough about potassium in relation to cheese production to make it a big focus, argues Renton. "I'm not convinced it offers a great leap forward." Ravenhall also claims the addition of potassium can damage the flavour. But, technical difficulties aside, salt levels are far less of a health concern than the amount of saturated fat in cheese.
So, in the healthy cheese market, lower-fat looks like the next big battleground, with 2011 promising to be a busy year.
An entirely different animal
For those allergic to cows milk but who want a 'proper' cheese with nothing added or taken out (see Fostering a Tolerance of Alternatives, p61), there's more to life than cows.
Although there is a limited choice of low-fat goats milk cheese in the UK at present, there is a "massive" opportunity, given that we lag behind other European countries in consumption, according to goats cheese supplier Delamere Dairy.
Whereas France produces 300 million litres of goats milk a year, Spain 200 million litres, and Holland 120 million litres most of which is processed into cheese the UK produces a mere 29 million litres.
"There is no reason why sales can't double over the next few years. It's just a case of driving consumption by offering consumers variety and something different from standard products," says a Delamere spokeswoman.
The company claims retailers are extending goats cheese ranges, although space is at a premium due to the small size of the category. St Helen's Farm claims retailers are missing a trick by not stocking more goats cheese products. Sales and marketing manager Mike Hind claims goats milk products are similar to a free-from range and a good selection of them can act as an anchor to draw in free-from shoppers.
"If the retailer doesn't have the right goats cheese in the store then consumers are likely to leave and walk into a store that has what they want." And with it, they will take the rest of their free-from custom.
He also argues goats cheese can play a role in "holding up the value of the market", saying: "Cows milk Cheddars are always on offer. Although the volumes are doing very well, the value of the sector is struggling because so much is sold on volume." In contrast, as a niche product, goats cheeses offer a higher cash margin for retailers than mainstream cows milk cheeses.
Fostering a tolerance of alternatives
'Dairy-free cheese' is an oxymoron at best and a travesty at worst, but there is a halfway house in the shape of Arla's Lactofree brand. Made from cows milk with the lactose filtered out, it was initially targeted at the lactose intolerant but, this year, the brand broadened its appeal to dairy avoiders with its Dump the Lactose, Not the Dairy campaign.
The 2010 campaign targeted mainstream consumer press with educational advertorials, aimed at people who have unnecessarily cut dairy from their diets.
As a spokeswoman explains: "Dairy avoiders can be people who are lactose intolerant but haven't associated the symptoms yet. So they recognise that when they drink milk, for example, they get unpleasant symptoms. They think dairy is the problem so cut it out completely, rather than just the lactose."
Sales of Lactofree cheese - a soft white and a semi-hard were added under the brand name 18 months ago - increased 127% to £1.3m in the year to 20 October [Nielsen MAT] and Arla is now eyeing a further sales increase to £1.8m by the end of 2011.
It hopes to achieve this with in-store promotions to encourage trial and, potentially, also through line extensions. And it is confident there is a strong customer base out there, with respondents to a 2008 Lactofree survey voting cheese the product most missed by people with lactose intolerance.
There is hope, too, for those keen to avoid dairy altogether. An increasing number of soya-based options include Tofutti a soya alternative to cream cheese and Cheezly Cheddar-style slices produced by The Redwood Wholefood Company. Scotland's Bute Island Foods, meanwhile, offers Sheese, a 100% dairy-free range made from soya concentrate, water and vegetable, including Mexican and Cheddar-style spreads and Mozzarella, Edam and Cheshire styles.
Focus On Cheese