Everything you ever wanted to know about cheese slices (because we weren’t afraid to ask)

12.02.18

To harried mums and dads, hungry children, cash-strapped students and fans of the summer BBQ, cheese slices are something to dig out of the fridge when a quick fix butty or cheeseburger is the order of the day.

But to the sandwich and food-to-go industries, they are probably the No 1 most important ingredient…and getting more so by the minute.

With the explosion of interest in convenience eating, cheese is at the heart of countless meal options. But it’s the not-so-humble-anymore cheese slice that combines real ease of use with precise portion control, and now with a fantastic choice of flavours thrown in for good measure.

Food ingredients giant, Ornua Ingredients UK, has been quick to recognise the trend. Already one of the country’s leading suppliers of block and grated cheese, their recent acquisition of FJ Need has added a comprehensive line-up of cheese slice varieties to their already impressive product portfolio.

And when the ‘big boys’ are keen to capture their own slice of the action, it’s a sure sign that demand is on the up.

So, what exactly is it that’s driving the unprecedented boom in this sector, creating on the way a growth in demand for what was once little more than a children’s stand-by favourite?

All change…

In a nutshell, our eating habits have been undergoing some radical changes of late, highlighting our increasing reliance on the grab-and-go meal or snack option.

Higher levels of employment, a shift in working hour patterns, longer commutes and a more relaxed approach to conventional mealtimes, have all contributed to us taking food-to-go in our stride.

In turn, this has created a whole new demand for sandwiches of every possible shape and kind, from something hot at breakfast, through a lunchtime meal-deal, to a handy bite to consume en-route to an after-work night at the cinema.

In fact, a sandwich is now the top to-go breakfast, picked up at no less than 9% of FTG breakfast visits. And it still reigns supreme as the big winner at lunchtime, with 21% of to-go lunches including…yes, you guessed it, a sandwich.*

From burger to bagel, panini to croissant, sandwich to sub, the nation’s favourite hot or cold convenience food is going from strength to strength…with cheese proving the mainstay ingredient, and with the cheese slice ticking more than its fair share of boxes for the FTG industry as a whole.

Variety is the slice of life

Many of us probably think of the cheese slice as something soft and pliable, probably processed, and maybe lacking something in terms of taste. Well, it’s time to think again!

Today’s consumer is far more discerning than may have been the case in the past. Flavour is a massive consideration. So is the texture of the cheese. But perhaps the most important shift of all has been the switch to fresher, healthier, more natural choices. Cheese slices are now all about ‘upgrading’ to something with premium appeal…and even an identifiable provenance.

Ornua Ingredients’ move into the market reflects this perfectly, and has allowed them to introduce no less than 15 different varieties, including territorials like Red Leicester and Double Gloucester, continentals like Emmental, Gouda and Edam, and flavours that include chilli and natural smoked Cheddar.

Breiffini Kennedy, Sales Controller at OIUK, is already a big fan.

“As a business, we’ve long enjoyed a reputation as a major supplier of block and grated cheese to the food service industries. But our new emphasis on cheese slices is allowing us to tap into an area that will be of increasing importance to the sandwich and food-to-go sectors.”

“Basically, we can now provide the convenience market with the ultimate convenience product. Super-easy to use, terrific variety, all the flavour and goodness of ‘real’, natural cheese, and superior portion control to keep costs firmly in check.”

As much a science as an art.

Producing a stack of cheese squares might not look like rocket science, but creating a premium product is a serious business. Cheese graders now employ years of knowledge and experience to select cheeses with the important attributes of texture, firmness, flavour profile and even length of finish.

And it’s an increasingly demand-driven process. No longer is it enough to say “here’s a box of cheese slices”. Manufacturers and graders are now reacting to their end-user requirements, tailoring production to meet some very specific market expectations.

But whatever the requirement, the best natural cheese slices all have one thing in common. Obvious though it may seem, they must be made from a cheese that can be cut cleanly into thin slices. That means selecting cheese that can resist breakage at the edges and cope with a certain level of ‘bending’ before it breaks. Technically this means having a firm body but with a high level of elasticity.

Unlikely, then, that Brie will ever be an everyday cheese slice favourite. But it does explain why Cheddar remains the original and best cheese for the purpose, with its added benefit of a strong flavour which allows it to hold its own when accompanied by a myriad of sauces and dressings.

Unsurprisingly, a cheese hot on its heels is Mozzarella. No longer just the key ingredient of the perfect pizza, Mozzarella slices are now a firm fixture in everything from a grilled cheese sandwich to a tomato, mozzarella and basil salad.

It’s a square world

UK food-to go, including sandwiches, is now a £20Bn+ market and represents approaching 25% of all eating out spend. That figure is expected to rise rapidly to be worth £23.5bn by 2022. It’s also expected that the sector will continue to grow faster than the wider eating out market.*

So, demand is on the up. Consumer expectations are rising too. And the challenge for the sector is not just to keep up, but to keep raising the bar as well.

That means staying one step ahead of changing trends and tastes. It also means that FTG retailers need to be inventive too…creating new, ever more ambitious ways to attract and keep the loyalty of their customers.

It’s a challenge relished by OIUK’s Richard Thorpe.

“We’re not just here to slice and pack cheese because that’s the current trend. Our aim is to help our customers develop their market.”

“A huge amount of our internal resource is invested in innovation and insight. We monitor everything that’s changing. We anticipate where demand will take us next. And we work with our customers to be first to market and first with new ideas.”

“That’s why cheese slices are a major focus for the business and why we keep a close eye on every tiny shift in consumer trends. For example, the vegetarian and flexitarian movements are growing at a faster rate than ever before…a section of the market that doesn’t just want a naturally healthier diet, but which places a lot of importance on real flavour too.”

“This explains why varieties like our chilli cheese slices are proving popular, why the US favourite, Monterey Jack, is a big hit too, and why our naturally wood-smoked Cheddar slices have set a new benchmarks for the category.”

So, there you have it. If you think a cheese slice, is a cheese slice, is a cheese slice, it’s time to look again at what promises to be a key ingredient in your future success.

We already know that cheese offers a flavour boost to every dish in which it features. But when you add the sheer convenience and cost-saving qualities of today’s new flavour-packed natural cheese slices, you’re looking at the real game-changer.

*Source: MCA

This article first appeared in Sandwich & Food To Go News, February 2018

Ornua Ingredients UK produces a quarterly Food Trends Update. For your free subscription, email richard.thorpe@ornua.com