Dairy and dairy alternatives

15 August 2007
Dairy and dairy alternatives

Low-fat, low taste, say critics. What'sthe truth about alternatives to full-fat dairy products and other substitutes? Patrick McGuigan licks the lid to see

Take a stroll down the supermarket chiller aisle and you will find shelves packed with low-fat and better-for-you dairy options - from cheese to yogurt, spreads to milk. But a peek inside a caterer's fridge is more likely to reveal a line up of full-fat favourites. As one supplier says: "Butter and cream are still kings in the kitchen."

While this is certainly true of the restaurant trade, where eating out is still centred on indulgence, other catering sectors are beginning to follow the lead set by retailers in offering low-fat or better-for-you dairy alternatives.

At Compass Group, communications manager Sara Matchett highlights business and industry (B&I) catering as a sector where low-fat dairy products are increasingly common.

"Many of our B&I restaurants provide low-fat dairy and soya products," she says. "Our ranges include skimmed and semi-skimmed milk, soya milk, low-fat and soya margarine, low-fat cream cheese, and low-fat and soya yogurts."

Compass's Choice range of prepared sandwiches is available at most B&I sites, and includes low-fat options such as tuna crème fraîche on malted wheatgrain, and roasted vegetables with low-fat cream cheese in a reduced-salt, reduced-fat tortilla wrap. "All our Choice sandwiches use Flora Light," says Matchett.

Other options include smoothies with low-fat yogurt and pasta made with low-fat cream cheese.

At Unilever Foodsolutions, category marketing director Susan Gregory also highlights B&I as an important area for healthier dairy products, along with schools and hospitals. "These are areas where there is a greater nutritional focus for a variety of reasons," she says, "whether it's companies wanting to offer their employees a healthier choice, Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals, or tailoring diets for hospital patients."

Research conducted by Unilever Foodsolutions in relation to its Flora spreads suggests that Britons are becoming more interested in health issues when eating out, expecting to eat fewer fried foods, cut down on fat and butter and generally be better informed about what they eat.

Healthier option

The 2006 Lunchtime Report from Eurest found that 40% of workers said that healthy food was important to them when choosing what to eat for lunch, and 68% said that they were more concerned about eating healthily than they were two years ago. "In the evenings and weekends," says Gregory, "people still want to indulge when they eat out, but at breakfast, lunch and in the workplace, there is a real demand for a healthier option."

This trend has also been noticed by Petra Priest, operations director at catering company Bite. "There has been a noticeable shift toward low-fat options, particularly at breakfast and lunch," she says.

The company, which counts software and pharmaceutical companies among its clients, has developed an interesting range of dishes made with low-fat dairy products, such as reduced-fat Cheddar cheese sandwiches with fig relish. "Reduced-fat cheese has less flavour, but using the fig relish helps get round it," Priest says.

This is a point backed up by Alan Shipman, executive food development chef at Sodexho. "Cooking with some of the lower-fat products will sometimes alter the taste of a dish," he says, "but careful development overcomes these issues. For example, cooking with low-fat cheese sometimes lacks the taste of full-fat cheeses, so it may be necessary to add extra seasoning."

The perception among caterers that low-fat dairy simply doesn't taste as good as the real thing may explain why such products have been slower to catch on, compared with their progress in the retail sector. According to Nick Fenwicke-Clennell, marketing director of cheese wholesaler Cheese Cellar, there is some justification for these prejudices.

"The flavour of cheese is closely associated with fat content," he says. "Although artificial flavourings can help restore this, it is often to the detriment of the taste and texture."

Rather than use man-made reduced-fat cheese, Fenwicke-Clennell suggests a different approach. He says: "A simple rule of thumb is that the softer and milder a cheese, the lower the fat content. Therefore, products such as ricotta, feta, mozzarella and Camembert can contain 50% less fat than harder cheeses such as Cheddar and Parmesan. Goats' milk also naturally contains less fat than its cow counterpart."

Depth of flavour

Another tip, he adds, is to consider the "less is more" rule. He says: "When it comes to the higher-fat hard or blue cheeses, opt for really good quality mature options, and only small amounts of cheese will be required to introduce depth of flavour to a dish."

At Bel Foodservice, which supplies a range of low-fat cheese options, brand manager Synthia Kanda promotes Laughing Cow cheese spread as a healthier alternative to butter or mayonnaise in cooking. "It can also double as a pizza topping or as a sandwich filling," she says.

The scepticism of chefs and the public in general over the taste of reduced-fat cheese is acknowledged by dairy supplier Dairy Crest, but it claims to have cracked the problem with the newly launched Cathedral City Lighter Cheddar, which contains 30% less fat than standard.

The company has spent more than two years developing the cheese, which is available to retail and food service markets, and says it has performed well in consumer taste tests. Meanwhile, Dairy Crest has also redeveloped its St Ivel Gold Extra Light and St Ivel Gold Extra Light + Omega 3 to a fat content of 19%.

Beyond cheese and spreads, milk processor Milk Link has been working on a new low-fat cream product called Lo-Crème. Made from a cultured sour cream, Lo-Crème has about 50% less fat than single cream, explains marketing assistant Robert Kennedy.

"We have been working with Pataks to develop reduced-fat curry sauces for food service using Lo-Crème," he says. "It gives sauces and soups the same whiteness and mouthfeel as cream." Other benefits include a shelf life of 30 days and a significantly cheaper price.

Kennedy says: "Dairy prices have been going through the roof in the past year because of world shortages caused by drought in Australia. Low-fat options are cheaper because they contain less milk solids."

Other alternatives

Other alternatives to cream include "cook-stable" products such as Pritchitts' Millac Gold and Roselle Supreme long-life cream alternatives, which whip to three times their original volume, thus helping to reduce the overall fat content of a dish.

Similarly, Unilever's Knorr Meadowland Culinary Double and Culinary Single are lower in fat, saturated fat and calories than the equivalent fresh cream.

Beyond low-fat, you only have to wander into a high street coffee chain to see how popular non-dairy milks have become. Soya milk is available at all the main coffee outlets and is also starting to creep into other areas of the food service sector. Bite's staff restaurants offer a choice of soya or rice milk, while Compass has developed special allergy menus for sectors such as hospital catering, which include options such as jacket potato with soya margarine, soya yogurt and soya milk custard.

At Alpro, which supplies soya milk to Starbucks, Costa Coffee and others, commercial director John Allaway estimates that about eight million coffees with soya milk were served last year in the UK, against almost none three or four years ago.

"It was originally something enjoyed by people with lactose intolerance, but soya has moved on," he says. "People understand that it helps reduce cholesterol and is low in fat. It's become part of the mainstream."

Whipping up a storm: restaurant eating is still based on indulgence, but 40% of people think healthy lunch options are important. Knorr's Meadowland products are lower in fat, saturated fat and calories than full-fat fresh cream

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