According to research from the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, snacking cheese as a trend has not peaked. 

A Nielsen snacking study ranked cheese third in sales — at $17.3 billion — when it came to all snack categories. For reference, that’s better than cookies ($7.4 billion), crackers ($6.7 billion) and ice cream ($6.6 billion). Only salty snacks and candy had more sales in the snacking category than cheese.

Bob Carroll, vice president of business development for the California Milk Advisory Board, gave his thoughts in IDDBA’s What’s In Store 2018: “The category is growing behind innovations for both children and adults,” he says. “Fun forms, shapes and new packaging are attracting children; new portion packs with other healthy and high-protein compliments like dried meats and nuts add variety for adults.”

Companies like Cow Candy are using bright colors and exciting flavors, paired with nutrition, to appeal to younger snackers and their parents. Cow Candy in particular is making a push at bedtime snacking.

“In snacking there is a lot of innovation in yogurts and desserts to satisfy decadent cravings in a bit healthier format and with better portion control,” says Danyel O’Connor, managing director of Cow Candy. “We see this being a push for adult snacking as it opens the evening and afternoon snack opportunities to more dairy items; whereas cheese typically falls under afternoon snacking.”

O’Connor says Cow Candy has found success as a bedtime snack because of the product’s low amounts of sugar and hint of sweetness, which gives a sense of dessert fun wile providing protein and calcium that parents appreciate. “We’re trying to open, innovate and expand the children’s snacking category much like yogurt did 10 or 15 years ago,” she says.

Not just for the kids

Snacking cheeses are aplenty when it comes to more adult flavors and tend to fall in line with today’s buzzwords. 

“We’re seeing trends that cover freshness and convenience, clean ingredient labels, protein, on-the-go snacking and new flavored cheeses for entertaining,” says Oscar Villarreal, vice-president of marketing for BelGioioso Cheese. “We were first in the Fresh Mozzarella Snacking cheese category, offering a one-ounce individual portion and have since expanded our line with Fontina, Parmesan and Provolone & Salame Rolls.”

Keeping on top of these trends requires producing high-quality cheeses with high-quality ingredients, Villarreal says. 

“We use fresh, quality local milk that is picked up daily from our farmers less than 30 miles away,” he says. “We use simple ingredients and produce a quality cheese and consumers who have tasted our quality will know that the ingredients are wholesome.”

BelGioioso recently opened a new plant in Denmark, Wisconsin, a 100,000-square-foot plant that produces fresh mozzarella cheeses. The company says the facility will allow for more efficient production and packaging, which means consumers might see even fresher products on the shelves.

New innovations, competition

O’Connor says the high protein content of cheese makes it a popular choice for snacking, but also puts it in direct competition with a lot of other foods. 
“Protein is very important to consumers today,” she says. “For that reason, you’re seeing single-serve chicken salads, grain salads, and so many new innovations to capture consumers’ limited snacking occasions.”

She notes that adult cheese snacks compete with single-serve flavored tuna, single-serve hard boiled eggs, single-serve chicken salad, chip-and-dip combos and much more.
“It isn’t just a cheese vs. cheese world,” O’Connor says. “In the same way that water competes with soda. You’re only choosing one drink at a time.”

One way to differentiate can be flavor. Cheeses can offer bold, unique tastes that other protein-rich snacks lack. BelgGioioso recently introduced a .75-oz Parmesan Power-Full Snack, a full nutty-flavored snack that has just 80 calories per serving. The company’s line of La Bottega di BelGioioso specialty cheeses bills itself as a destination within the specialty cheese case, offering 4-oz pieces for snacking or entertaining.

“Consumers are especially interested in more flavorful, specialty cheeses and learning about their craftmanship, ingredients and history,” says Villarreal.

O’Connor says she has seen a lot of cheese snacks being developed in a meal solution format, offering one-stop snack opportunities to consumers. These options include crackers or nut mixes and meats along with their cheese. Other innovations might be as simple as offering variety packs to consumers that don’t want to get stuck in a cheese snack rut.

“There is a lot of innovation that is geared towards enticing adults into the cheese snack category,” she says. “A lot of new players are becoming involved in this category as they now see that convenience is king and consumers are willing to pay for that convenience when the value is perceived.”

She also says that among all this innovation, flavor remains the most important aspect.

“I think that flavor is number one,” she says. “Value, variety, nutritional content are all after flavor. If you don’t have an item that brings people back for second or third servings, then the interest falls off. You can’t be everything to everyone. You have to know your customer and focus on their needs and taste profiles. That’s the most challenging that as an innovator is education and trial.