The latest research from Nielsen shows millennials leading the health and wellness trend along with baby boomers. While cheese isn't necessarily considered a health food, its "natural" qualities are appealing to foodies who also drink wine, and to the increasing number of snackers. Nielsen data show approximately 40 percent of Americans snack as a meal replacement.
"With millennials, they are more about sustainability and more about that natural/organic — that is what they kind of value," said Carman Allison, Nielsen vice president of consumer insights. "When you look at the boomers, they tend to eat healthier because of lifestyle and because of health concerns."
On average, Americans consume more than 33.4 pounds of cheese each year, more than double the amount they did back in the mid-1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. American and mozzarella varieties are among the most popular kinds. That said, our appetite for processed cheese continues to decline.
Cheese ranked in the top five list of food categories making the most contribution to supermarket sales growth over the last four years, according to Nielsen data
Overall, the natural foods trend is leading more companies to renovate longtime product lines. For example, ConAgra's Banquet frozen meal line is changing several recipes to use real cheese and real butter and other big food companies such as Kraft Heinz, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg, Unilever and Hershey are among others with initiatives in various stages to reformulate some classics.
Several of the multinational food companies, including General Mills — owner of Annie's — have acquired natural-focused brands and will have a presence this week at the Natural Products Expo West, the nation's largest natural and organic trade show. More than 3,000 companies, large and small, and an estimated 70,000 attendees are expected at this year's expo in Anaheim, California. Good Food Made Simple, a Massachusetts-based company, is launching a line of waffles at the expo.
"Most of the waffles in the frozen aisle are formulated exclusively with vegetable oil for cost savings, but we went with real butter," said Julia Khodabandeh, director of marketing at the GFMS brand. "There's a higher cost to our ingredients but we think it provides a much more satisfying meal."
Also, restaurants are making menu changes. As an example, McDonald's last year switched out of liquid margarine to butter on the Egg McMuffin. Maloni of the American Restaurant Association estimated last year's shift to butter by McDonald's increased the nation's annual butter consumption by around 20 million pounds, or about 1 percent of total production. The company also recently added mozzarella sticks, stating on its website that the product is "made with 100 percent real and melty mozzarella cheese."