While yoghurt has long been popular with slimmers, cheese has traditionally been off the menu for consumers trying to lower their fat intake, as healthier cheeses have been slow to achieve the taste and texture necessary to attract a mass market. But, writes Catherine Sleep, this could be about to change.

As long as processed foods have been around, so have diets. But while certain categories within the food sector have benefited massively from consumers’ desire to lose weight, others have struggled to take advantage. Chocolate confectionery, for instance, has traditionally been regarded as a no-go area for slimmers, although a small number of ‘healthier’ products have managed to carve out a niche for themselves, such as Masterfoods’ Flyte bar.

The dairy sector, however, has been one of the biggest winners of the slimming market, though this success has not been evenly spread across its different subcategories. In the UK and most of Europe, yoghurt is the largest sector of the low-calorie market, at GBP302.67bn (US$571.26bn), representing 15% of overall value in the UK in 2005.

Leading players in this category are Müller (Müllerlight), Weight Watchers, Danone (Shape) and Nestlé (Sveltesse). In the UK, Yoplait Dairy Crest produces yoghurts on behalf of the Weight Watchers brand, and its focus on NPD has helped it reach a 16% value share of the light, chilled yoghurts and desserts market (IRI, 52 weeks to 1 October 2005).

The secret behind the success of yoghurt-based diet products is their neat fit with the healthy indulgence megatrend. This is a trend whereby people endeavour to choose a healthy product that nevertheless allows them to feel they are ‘treating themselves’ to something indulgent. Consumers view yoghurts as a healthy treat, particularly products with a high-quality taste profile. Creamy-style yoghurts that are low in fat, sugar and calories encourage guilt-free indulgence and are often eaten as a dessert or snack between meals.

In April 2006, CoolBrands International in the US launched Yoplait Frozen Yoghurt & Cereal Bars, which are claimed to be the first ready-to-eat (RTE) frozen yoghurt bars with fortified cereal. In order to appeal to dieters, two flavours (strawberry and vanilla) are marketed as low fat, and contain up to 15 vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, D, B6 and B12, and thiamin, niacin, zinc and iron. In addition, the bars contain as much calcium as an 8oz glass of milk. The aim, according to Coolbrands, is to go beyond ‘better for you’ innovation and into the realm of nutritious frozen snacks.

The largest region in terms of yoghurt market value is Western Europe, with an estimated value of US$51bn in 2006. Eastern Europe, however, has witnessed the fastest growth from 2002 at a CAGR of 11.3% from the low base of US$3.6bn. Low fat, fruit and probiotic yoghurts are particularly popular with Central and Eastern Europeans due to the perceived health benefits.

However, one category which has failed to realise the potential of the diet market is cheese, largely because it is traditionally high in saturated fats and calories. Lower-fat cheeses have been introduced in a bid to meet a very clear demand for a guilt-free cheese treat, but these products have often failed to match the taste profile of full-fat versions and have been shunned by cheese lovers.

However, advances in food technology have prompted the launch of a raft of lower-fat cheeses to appeal to dieters, and 2006 has seen an increase in NPD activity on behalf of cheese-loving slimmers. In August, savoury ingredients supplier Synergy, part of the Carbery group, launched a new range of premium cheese ingredients under the Saporlait brand that are ideal for low-fat cheeses as they can help in salt and fat reduction while improving flavour and mouthfeel. This innovation will prove useful to manufacturers of processed foods that contain cheese, but 2006 has also seen activity by producers of cheese in its own right.

In the UK, Somerset cheese maker Cricketer Farm is preparing to launch a half-fat probiotic cheese by the end of 2006 to target both dieters and health-conscious consumers. According to the company, throughout the development process the focus was on improving the taste profile of reduced fat cheeses, which can be bland and dry.

Simon O’Brien, sales and marketing manager at Cricketer Farm, told just-food: “Some lower-fat products do have poor taste and texture quality compared to standard variants. The only way we can change this perception is by developing and consistently producing lower-fat foods which are comparable to full-fat equivalents.”

Cricketer Farm conducted focus groups across the UK before developing its new probiotic half-fat cheese, and spent over 12 months creating the new recipe made using the bacterium BB-12 Bifidobacterium. According to the company, one daily 20g (3.2g of fat) piece of the new half-fat cheese provides full probiotic benefit.

O’Brien said: “Our research shows that consumers are looking for additional health benefits both with lower-fat and full-fat foods. People want to receive probiotic benefit by eating foods they would eat as part of their normal diet, without the need for sugary drinks. Hence the reason for launching a probiotic half-fat cheese, and also a probiotic cheddar.”

Persisting in the development of better tasting and more appealing healthier cheeses would appear to make sense given the growth in the global cheese market. Western Europe experienced the strongest regional value increase with a CAGR of 13.4% between 2002 and 2006, reaching an estimated US$20bn in 2006.

Cheese has a lot in its favour despite its high saturated fat content; it is viewed as a natural product, and the calcium content and related benefits are widely recognised. Moreover, it is a popular everyday food product, not least with children, who are the focus of great concern about obesity today. Future growth will be spurred on by the development of lower-fat variants which will appeal to the rising number of health-conscious shoppers.

Get more information on the new just-food report Global market review of diet trends and weight management with forecasts to 2012