According to Packaged Facts’ new September 2023 report Cheese: US Market Trends & Opportunities, 2nd Edition, cheese retail sales have benefited from price increases and premiumization as consumers have purchased higher-priced premium cheeses. Shifts in the cheese market have been driven by interest in natural products, those with unique flavor profiles or international origins, and the popularity of cheese boards or charcuterie boards that often feature exotic and high-end cheeses.
The “snackification” of cheese has also boosted sales, as many consumers are eating cheese as a snack or consuming snack foods like cheese as the main part of a meal. Packaged Facts’ May 2023 National Online Consumer Survey found that 52% of respondents report cheese is one of their preferred types of snack. Cheese is also frequently paired with other popular snack foods such as crackers, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
1. A Focus on Healthy Living Benefits Cheese Sales
For some, the pandemic inspired a greater focus on healthy living in general – regular exercise, more whole foods, etc. – and not just susceptibility to illness. This has led to higher demand for food products with “better-for-you” traits, including clean labels and natural/organic ingredients.
Nearly all consumers agree that food is a path to overall health and wellness, while also believing that food is something to enjoy or treat oneself with regardless of health effect. More than two-thirds of consumers also agree that good nutrition is the key to overall wellness.
Cheese has a relatively healthy perception among consumers (particularly “better-for-you” versions, including cheese made with milk from grass-fed animals). Cheese also has indulgent properties for consumers who want to “treat themselves,” so it benefits from the “best of both worlds,” common beliefs about nutrition and enjoying food.
2. Low Carb Diet Trends Are a Boon for Cheese Sales
Some of the most popular diets for weight loss or health are low carb and high protein varieties. Several popular diets also emphasize low carbohydrate consumption as a component of a larger nutritional or lifestyle regimen. For instance:
The keto (or ketogenic) diet mandates very low carbohydrate intake, high fat, and adequate protein content. It forces the body to burn fat by making carbohydrates scarce.
The Atkins diet is similar, promoting the consumption of high fat and high protein content while carbohydrates and items such as bread, cereal, and pasta are strictly limited or forbidden.
Cheese benefits from the general trend of consumers who are trying to add more protein to their diet. Cheese has high protein (and fat) content and low carbohydrates, so it can benefit from this trend. Consumers who are following a low-carb diet or are simply looking to increase protein intake may turn to cheese for a snack or an ingredient in other foods they eat.
Cheese may carry “low carb,” Atkins, or keto claims since it contains low carbohydrate content and higher protein and fat content. However, cheese often does not carry such a label since it is naturally low carb without any changes made to accommodate special diets. Instead, it often plays up its high protein content with labeling such as “excellent source of protein” or a front of package claim showing the amount of protein per serving.
3. Plant-Based Cheese Trends
Unlike with healthy living and low carb diet trends, plant-forward trends are often seen as a threat to dairy cheese sales. Some consumers believe that plant-based products are healthier than animal products, which has led to growth in demand for plant-based dairy alternatives, particularly milk. Nonetheless, the number of consumers who think plant-based dairy products are healthier than conventional dairy represents a minority of the population. Some consumers think that conventional dairy products are healthier than plant-based versions, while others may think that the healthfulness of both product types is similar.
Unlike with milk and milk beverages, plant-based alternatives to cheese have yet to make significant inroads as a substitute product for dairy cheese, as many consumers who have tried plant-based cheese products do not like their taste or texture compared to conventional cheese. Instead, plant-based cheese may be more of a complement to dairy cheese as taste and texture of the next generation of alternatives continue to improve. The most competitive nondairy options are in the spreads, dips, and sauces category, as many of these products approximate the taste and texture of soft, creamy cheeses used for dairy-based spreads, dips, and sauces without needing the structure of the most popular cheese forms (chunks, grated, shredded, and slices).
Additionally, while vegans actively avoid dairy cheese, many who are lactose intolerant and otherwise avoid many types of dairy can still comfortably consume many types of cheese, particularly hard and matured cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, parmesan, and feta, or cheese made with sheep or goat milk. Still, food allergies and sensitivities/intolerances do affect many consumers and can impact cheese consumption. While only a small share of consumers have milk allergies and must avoid cheese for fear of a dangerous reaction, a larger share are lactose intolerant or believe they have lactose intolerance. These individuals may only avoid certain types of cheese. A certain share of lactose intolerant consumers may use medication or supplements to eat more types of cheese comfortably, particularly more problematic soft cheeses such as cream cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella, which frequently appear in popular comfort food meals such as pizza and lasagna.
Other than vegans, consumers following a plant-forward diet are actually slightly more likely to report their households use natural/imported cheese. Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians may value cheese as a good source of protein and fat, which they may not get from meat or seafood depending on their diet.
Additional analysis on the natural cheese market can be found in the September 2023 Packaged Facts report Cheese: US Market Trends & Opportunities, 2nd Edition.
About the blogger:
Cara Rasch is a food and beverage analyst for Packaged Facts. She studies consumer and industry trends in this space and has a B.A. in economics from Allegheny College.