How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted cheese consumption around the world?

Here we explore some of the key findings of a new international research study into the effects on today’s cheese consumers, as well as the origins and the future of the world’s favourite dairy food

by Fred Griemsmann, VP Cheese and Powder Systems at Tetra Pak.

Cheese has been an essential part of human diets for centuries and it is set to remain so for many years to come. People are becoming more adventurous in terms of novelties, ingredients and tastes, and cheese manufacturers see the benefits of exploring new product recipes and ingredients, as well as technology to ensure that there is no compromise on the overall quality of the end result.

Woman eating pasta with cheese

Cheesemaking has some common steps: add culture to milk at a certain temperature, let the culture grow for a specified time, add a specific amount of rennet to cause the cheese to coagulate, then harvest the curd, separating it from the whey. However, making quality cheese of any type is a balance of craftsmanship and expert knowledge.

Growing consumer appeal for the world’s favourite dairy food is leading to increased growth in emerging markets, especially in Asia Pacific where the leading countries for CAGR growth are China and India. Cheese makes up 42% share of edible dairy, making it the biggest dairy food in the world.

Increased consumption occasions

During a recent International research study, consumers said that their consumption of cheese has increased, since they have been spending more time at home during the pandemic. Globally, more than a third (36%) of participants report their consumption has increased, with just 6% saying it has gone down. The highest reported increase is in yellow cheese, with 39% globally saying they are eating more. The lowest increase is white cheese, but even for this, 29% of consumers globally say they are eating more.

Generally, consumers recognise the different types of cheese but don’t associate them with brands or formats. Geographically, increased consumption is highest in Asia Pacific where 50% report an increase in consumption, and Greater Middle East & Africa where 44% say they are eating more cheese.

Most interestingly, this doesn’t appear to be only tied to the pandemic. A significant percentage of respondents (32% overall) say their consumption of cheese will also increase in the future – especially in India, China and Turkey. Processed unspreadable cheese shows the highest rate of predicted increased consumption (37%).

Cheese is versatile enough to be consumed everywhere throughout the day. In-home snacking is a growing trend when compared with the same research study conducted in 2018, with cheese widely enjoyed while watching TV (up 36%) or when enjoying a drink (up 35%) and mid-morning/mid-afternoon (up 32%). The choice of cheese tends vary by occasion: for example, yellow cheese is enjoyed with a drink, unspreadable cheese while watching TV, and spreadable cheese for a quick lunch.

Cheese is widely seen by consumers as healthy, with 56% of respondents making this association. It’s also seen as nutritious (51%), specifically high in protein (42%) and calcium (41%). Indeed, its healthiness is cited as the number-two reason for consumption, although this is exceeded by tastiness, cited by 25% of global respondents. This is up considerably from 20% in the previous cheese consumer research study conducted in 2018.

Interest in production of cheese

There is real demand from consumers to know the origins of their food, with an overwhelming majority (77%) expressing an interest in the process of cheese production. Asia Pacific is the most inquisitive region, with 96% of Indian consumers interested in the process, followed closely by 89% of Chinese consumers.

Cheese consumers place most emphasis on the ingredients and where they are from (72%), with particular attention paid to the inclusion of preservatives (58%), colorants (55%) or palm oil (42%). However, they are also interested in where the product is made (52%), the heat treatments used (41%) and the sterile production (37%). This interest in the process extends to the packaging of the product, with over two-thirds (69%) placing value on environmentally friendly packaging, placing it fourth as a desirable product attribute after ‘ready to eat’ (82%), ‘nutritious’ (81%) and ‘free from added preservatives’ (81%).

The rather new phenomenon of plant-based cheese is rising in popularity too. While only a quarter of consumers questioned (24%) had tried it, over half (53%) would be interested in trying it in the future. Asia Pacific countries show the most interest – India (86%) and China (82%) – closely followed by Brazil (60%) and South Africa (59%).

History of Cheese

Cheesemaking is an ancient art that is said to have begun when someone serendipitously stored milk in a preserved animal stomach, causing the milk to coagulate because of the natural rennet. After trying it, they learned that this was a great way to preserve milk in a concentrated, nutritious form.

People have been eating cultured dairy products for over 4,000 years, whether yoghurt, kefir, or cheeses. Today, it exists and is enjoyed on every continent in the world, with the US leading the way for cheese sales volumes, followed by Germany and then France.

Three types of cheese consumers

Based on the responses of the research study, consumers can be divided into three key segments.

  1. Innovative Cheese Explorers (53%) Very fond of cheese, they like to search for innovations and novelties, to experiment with new tastes, flavours or textures and consequently consume a large variety of cheeses. They pay attention to how cheese is produced and are open to trying and buying new types of cheese, such as plant-based or cheeses with different flavours. This group is the largest overall, particularly dominating in India (77%) and China (73%).
  2. Selective Consumers (17%) This group consumes fewer types of cheese than the Innovative Explorers, but they purchase it very frequently. Even if more selective, they are interested in cheese characteristics and how it is produced, and are open to trying something new, like plant-based cheese. This group is particularly strong in Germany (25%) and Italy (23%).
  3. Traditional Cheese Lovers (30%) This group is very traditional in their consumption, tending to mainly consume the same types of cheese, enjoying it both on its own and in recipes. They are less interested in the production process and are not really open to trying new things or experimenting. This is the largest group in the USA and Russia (both 47%).

Cheese has been an essential part of human diets for centuries and it is set to remain so for many years to come. People are becoming more adventurous in terms of novelties, ingredients and tastes, and Tetra Pak has the facilities to accommodate innovation with new product recipes and ingredients, as well as technology to ensure that there is no compromise on the overall quality of the end result.

Types of cheese consumers

graphics of cheese consumption
graphics of cheese consumption