The ‘70s diet food may still be goopy but it has new packaging, new flavors and lots of protein, just like Greek yogurt. By ELLEN BYRON.
Cottage cheese wants what Greek yogurt has.
Greek yogurt, the darling of the dairy aisle, has soared in sales, winning over consumers and riding the obsession for high-protein foods. Now makers of cottage cheese say they have even more protein and less sugar, new flavors and new packaging.
Cottage cheese hasn’t been popular since the 1970s when dieters embraced the soft, white milk curds. The often goopy consistency, bland taste and old-fashioned tubs lost ground to yogurt, which has churned out ever-new flavors, textures and updated, snack-friendly containers.
“Cottage cheese has been all alone on the shelf for years, just begging to be noticed,” says Andrew Westrich, a brand manager at Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative that makes small-curd cottage cheese. “Now, lo and behold, consumers are realizing there are cultures, protein and good fat in it.”
Attempting a cottage-cheese comeback, makers are rolling out new flavors like maple vanilla, Kalamata olive and basil Parmesan. New single-serve containers that resemble yogurt cups seek to convince people to eat on the go. Above all, cottage cheese is trying to repair its reputation as a bland diet food.
After years of stagnant sales, cottage cheese is showing some signs of life, reaching $1.1 billion in the year ended Oct. 30. That is about level with the gains made over the prior two years, according to market researcher IRI. But it still makes up only 2% of total dairy sales, compared with yogurt, which holds 13%, says John Crawford, a dairy analyst at IRI.
“Until now, cottage cheese didn’t do anything while yogurt innovation exploded,” says Gerard Meyer, chief executive of Muuna cottage cheese. He thinks a creamier, better-tasting product will draw shoppers. In August, the company introduced single-serve cups with flavors including strawberry, pineapple and mango and promised a “melt-in-your-mouth experience.”
Chobani, a leading maker of Greek yogurt, takes a more-the-merrier approach to other dairy foods following its playbook. “We’re really under-consuming dairy,” says Robert Post, senior director for Chobani’s Nutrition Center, noting that most people should eat about three cups a day, yet the majority only eat about half that. “There’s room for a number of dairy foods to make up that gap,” he says.
General Mills Inc., which makes Yoplait yogurt, is betting on a cottage cheese revival, recently completing its second round of investment in Good Culture, a line of “gourmet” organic cottage cheese in single-serve containers with flavors like blueberry açaí chia. “The lights are coming back on,” says John Haugen, general manager of 301 Inc., the venture-capital arm of General Mills, which also advises Good Culture on its operations and sales strategies.
Cottage cheese “has been flyover country, and there hasn’t been a reason to stop,” Mr. Haugen says. Good Culture has little sugar, high protein and a few, simple ingredients. “It has the opportunity to ignite growth with a whole new generation of people,” he says.
Since launching last year, Good Culture relies heavily on handing out samples, hoping to persuade shoppers that its cottage cheese isn’t the watery, lumpy food they imagine. “We’re not your grandmother’s cottage cheese,” says Good Culture Chief Executive Jesse Merrill, a co-founder with Anders Eisner, son of Michael Eisner, who is also an investor. Mr. Eisner, the former Disney Co. chief executive, enjoys cottage cheese with fresh fruit, Mr. Merrill says.
Mr. Merrill sees the biggest hurdle to winning over consumers as cottage cheese’s consistency. “People have a preconceived notion that they don’t like the texture of cottage cheese,” he says, adding that Good Culture’s formula makes it thicker and creamier than traditional versions.
Heidi Golden eats a cup of plain cottage cheese for lunch about once a week. Often, she adds pepper, minced onion and avocado. Her four children, ages 11 to 3, eat it sprinkled with cinnamon sugar or mixed into pasta sauces. But when Ms. Golden, a health and fitness coach in Portland, Ore., suggested to clients that they try cottage cheese, she was surprised by their responses. “Honestly, it is the most divisive food,” says Ms. Golden. “Everyone had this visceral reaction of either loving it or hating it.”
While cottage cheese has more protein and less sugar than Greek yogurt, some nutrition experts recommend it with some caution. “The main health drawback to cottage cheese is sodium,” says Lisa Dierks, a dietitian at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. About a half cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains 406 grams of sodium, compared with plain, low-fat Greek yogurt’s 34 grams. “You have to look at how that fits into the rest of your dietary plan,” she says. “Most Americans already eat too much sodium.”
Cottage cheese was once a favorite lunch item at department-store restaurants for women who sought a light meal when taking a break from trying on clothes. At its New York City flagship, Bloomingdale’s Forty Carrots restaurant dropped cottage cheese from its fruit platter a few years ago because most shoppers preferred frozen yogurt, a spokeswoman says.
Sales of Organic Valley’s pasture-raised, organic cottage cheese are up over the year before, the company says. Going forward, the brand hopes to capitalize on “yogurt fatigue,” says Mr. Westrich. “There’s a certain percentage of the population who didn’t get on the bandwagon, and another portion that maybe had too much yogurt,” he says. Cottage cheese requires more chewing than yogurt, he says, “so cottage cheese feels more substantive than creamy yogurts.”
Next year, Breakstone’s and Knudsen cottage cheeses, owned by Kraft Heinz Co., plan to introduce new flavors for Cottage Doubles, a line of cottage cheese packaged with toppings, including roasted red pepper, mango habanero and honey vanilla. Updated packaging will hold 20% more in each cup and emphasize its nine grams of protein per serving, says Ericka Binkley, brand manager for Breakstone’s and Knudsen cultured cheese.
The brands posted sales gains over the past year and are seeing a rise in the number of households buying cottage cheese. “That tells us people who didn’t eat it as a kid are starting to eat it now, and people who already eat it are buying more of it,” Ms. Binkley says.
HP Hood rolled out a flurry of flavored cottage cheeses in recent years, including cucumber & dill, garden vegetable and, most recently honey & pear and maple & vanilla. “Add maple vanilla cottage cheese on your waffles,” says company spokeswoman Lynne Bohan. “Or use it on a bagel instead of cream cheese.”