Convenient formats are to the fore, but consumers are nevertheless relishing more intense, sophisticated flavours. Gaelle Walker reports

Growing at 3.2% year-on-year in value and now worth £1.86bn, cheese has become one of the most important food categories in the UK.
As deli sales of cheese continue to fall, TNS data for the year to September 11, 2005 identifies the pre-packaged sector as a primary driver of the market’s growth.
Changing consumption patterns mean that consumers are relying more heavily on products that save time and effort, and they are willing to pay higher prices for cheese that comes pre-sliced, grated and in mini portions.
According to Dairy Crest’s 2005 Cheese Report, the demand for convenience cheese is growing at a steady pace. It says the total convenience sector, which includes sliced and grated formats, has experienced a sales uplift, with total sales soaring 14% to £92m [TNS 52 w/e May 22, 2005].
Value sales of sliced cheese rose 5% to £57m, while grated has experienced phenomenal growth, climbing 32% year-on-year to £35m.
Cheese is a high penetration market with 88% of British households buying at least one type of cheese every four weeks and, according to TNS, the average household spent an additional £2 on cheese this year, compared with the previous year.
However, while UK consumers have become more Continental and adventurous in their tastes, Cheddar remains the nation’s cheese of choice and takes the biggest bite of the market by far. Its 51% sector slice is worth £942m and is growing at 3.6% year-on-year.
With a 12.4% share, the processed cheese sector currently constitutes the second-biggest portion of the market and is worth
However, TNS data shows this to be a sector recording a decline of 3.8% year-on-year as consumers turn to more flavoursome block cheeses.
According to Nigel White, director of The British Cheese Board, this fall in consumption is down to the increasingly animated health debate, coupled with consumer desire for more natural products.
“As opposed to natural slices, processed cheese slices have a relatively high salt content, on account of them not needing to be refrigerated. This is probably the main issue driving the category’s decline, as the dangers of eating too much salt have been highly publicised of late.”
Canny manufacturers are well aware of the shift in consumer feeling over health and are using it as yet another avenue for innovation.
According to The Cheese Report, the better-for-you category, which includes low fat, organic and cottage cheese, is now worth £240m. Within this, low-fat cheese is growing at 11% in value year-on-year and is now worth £92m.
Wyke Farms’ Lescol brand, which is said to have 90% less
cholesterol than Cheddar, is enjoying buoyant sales.
Joseph Heler has also just entered the fray with the development of an Omega-3 cheese, due to be launched in the new year.
Meanwhile, Ben Cull, Yeo Valley Organic’s marketing director, is bullish about the gains to be had in the organic cheese sector, which is now worth £18m. “There is more research in the dairy market than any other to show there are real health and nutritional benefits to foods made with organic milk,” he says. “Without a doubt, the best is yet to come.”
However, manufacturers and retailers need to keep consumers interested if the total cheese category is to continue expanding, warns White. “Cheese is a mature market, so we constantly need to give people new reasons to buy into it. This can be achieved by expanding and introducing new meal occasions, giving consumers the opportunity to use cheese in a different way.”
Retailers can work hand in hand with manufacturers to achieve this by offering recipe cards, tasting sessions and specialist advice such as can be given at deli counters, he suggests.
Following the phenomenal success of on-the-go snacking, White points to breakfast cheese as a possible area for development. While cheese is a lunchtime and evening snack, better targeting of it as a topping on the morning toast or crumpet could be a way of growing the market, he says.
Continental cheeses, the fastest-growing category, up 9% year-on-year, is also going to continue to grow, according to TNS, as consumers’ tastebuds mature.