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A growing appetite for cheese

Retailers and suppliers "whey" in on the state of fromage in Canada
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Canada's love affair with cheese shows no sign of waning. Over a 10-year period (2010 to 2020), consumption increased by 15% with the average Canadian enjoying 12.5 kilograms per year—with gains in the last couple of years, according to Statista. Its data shows Canada sits in the fifth spot among cheese-nibbling nations. In 2022, unprocessed cheese sales in Canada are expected to hit US $3,38 million, and processed cheese sales will earn another US $801 million, with several factors driving market growth.

Plant-based innovation

The plant-based cheese market may be small, but it is mighty and growing. As health-conscious consumers embrace newer trends like flexitarianism (a diet that focuses on plant-based foods and moderate meat consumption), suppliers and grocers continue to add more products that taste and perform like their dairy-based counterparts.

Daiya was the first to market plant-based cheeses in Canada back in 2008. Its latest formulations for its cheese blocks have amped up their creaminess factor, thanks to the introduction of ingredients like oats and chickpeas. A variety of SKUs, including Medium Cheddar, Jalapeño Havarti and Monterey Jack, dressed in their new packaging, have found their place alongside regular dairy choices. Daiya has also added a spreadable Garlic & Herb Cream Cheeze made with coconut cream to its roster.

Big names have opted in, too. The Laughing Cow, a 100-year-old brand under the Groupe Bel umbrella, now offers The Laughing Cow Mix line, a hybrid of real cheese, legumes and herbs. New flavours include one with paprika and red beans and another with herbs, packaged in the traditional round box. The company has also introduced a dairy-free Boursin and its plant-based Nurishh line.

Future of Cheese, a plant-based food company owned by Toronto-area grocer Organic Garage, is getting noticed for its dairy alternatives. Run by co-founders chef Craig Harding and maître fromager (cheese master) Afrim Pristine, the company’s first production run of ripened brie, which launched last December, was quick to sell out and exceeded expectations. Jen Wojtaszek, company president, says there are more product in the pipeline, but is mum on what’s next.

“Although we keep our upcoming products confidential, we can disclose that our focus is to develop plant-based variations of dairy products that have been traditionally in high demand by consumers, such as mozzarella and cheddar,” Wojtaszek says. Wojtaszek credits the high demand for plant-based cheeses to health-conscious consumers who are interested in sustainability, and notes there is also a huge population suffering from lactose-intolerance and dairy allergies, which further drives sales.

Another company to watch is Betterland Foods. Though it has yet to launch plant-based cheeses, its sustainable products are gaining traction. Its creamy cow-free milk has received much attention for its cutting-edge technology, which uses a whey protein identical to what’s found in cow milk. Founder Lizanne Falsetto says the company is currently testing out a ricotta made with the gluten-free milk. “Homemade ricotta really does have better texture and flavor with Betterland milk,” she says. “It’s also much more sustainable for the planet.”

Consumer focus on health is also inspiring new launches at Lactalis Canada. Acknowledging that roughly 44% of Canadians experience some form of lactose intolerance, the company’s Black Diamond brand introduced a lactose-free range with Marble Cheese Shreds, Marble Natural Cheese Slices and Mozzarella Natural Cheese Slices, which started shipping in April.

Snacks and cooking kits

Snacking and a preference for home cooking continue to keep the cheese category ripe. “Cheese snacks were growing pre-pandemic,” says Sabrina Zollo, vice president, marketing—cheese & tablespreads at Lactalis Canada. “They accelerated throughout the pandemic and continue to be strong today.” Launched in 2021, Black Diamond Cheestrings Probiotic caters to little snackers. The company says it’s the first kids’ cheese snack with one billion active probiotics per serving.

Meanwhile, the cooking-at-home trend is fuelling growth of large and value-add formats, as well as new products, Zollo points out. Cracker Barrel Cheese Sauce Kits is a first-to-market, 100% natural cheese sauce kit with a unique blend of Cracker Barrel shredded cheeses and special seasoning. It takes less than 15 minutes to make and is available in 4 Cheese Italiano, Mexiqueso and Creamy Alfredo varieties. More cooking and snacking innovations from Cracker Barrel, Black Diamond and P’tit Quebec are due to retailers in August, according to the company.

New & notable cheeses

Whole Foods Market continues to expand its selection of cheeses, with new entries like a feta from Kourellas made from sheep and goat’s milk. “Their values are in line with Whole Foods Market and their feta tastes incredible,” says Kristin Payne, the grocer’s senior Canadian cheese buyer and American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (ACS CCP). Payne predicts a rise in the popularity of grass-fed, organic, local, artisan-made cheeses. Cheeses that use other types of milk, like sheep, buffalo and goat, are trending, she says. In fact, data from Aritzon estimates a year-over-year growth of 8% in goat milk products alone, including cheeses.

New and notable cheeses are a focus at Metro, too. “Hard grana-style cheeses, such as our Irresistible Reggiano and 20-month Reserve Grana Padano have consistently shown growth, while aged Canadian cheddar has always reigned supreme amongst our Ontario customers,” explains Andrew Moulton, senior merchandising manager, fine cheese, Metro. The grocer curates its cheese selection based on country of origin, production style and milk type. Moulton says this allows for flexibility in creating appropriate homes for new cheeses.

Metro has found success with its Locally Sourced program, highlighting makers such as Mountain Oak, St-Albert and Stonetown Artisan Cheese. It is also working with European partners to bring in new seasonal offerings later this year. “Our customers are looking at assortment and seasonal cheeses that they cannot find elsewhere, and attractive pricing on everyday cheeses such as Havarti and cheddar,” says Moulton. He notes that the cheese counter experience at Metro prioritizes consistency, clear communication on promotional items and appropriate training for store staff.

At Lactalis Canada, Zollo says the Balderson and Galbani brands will be introducing new products later this year, which will appeal to those seeking fresh offerings in fine cheeses.

To promote sales of fine cheeses and customer trial, it’s important to have knowledgeable staff to explain how to use them. “In many of our Whole Foods stores, you’ll find a Certified Cheese Professional,” says Payne. “Our Certified Cheese Professionals have a comprehensive understanding of all that is cheese. This level of expertise gives our customers comfort knowing help is available to choosing the best cheese for their needs. It’s a level of trust and assurance that is hard to find.”

With rising prices and inflation utmost on the minds of shoppers, grocers will need to maintain the momentum in cheese sales by offering exciting selections, promotional pricing and a cheese-savvy staff. A recent Statistics Canada report saw fresh milk prices rise at the fastest month-over-month rate of 5.8% since April 1994. Cheese indexes were up 3% in February alone and some estimates say dairy, including cheese, may see a 15% price jump. Grocers and suppliers will need to collaborate closely to keep cheese sales on an upward trajectory.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's May 2022 issue 

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