Hold the Cheese?
Taco Bell recently said it would allow patrons to order menu items “Fresco Style,” essentially swapping fat-free salsa for traditional cheese and sauces. Pizza Hut, a fellow Yum! Brands Inc. company, soon followed suit, announcing plans to ditch some of its cheese. In fact. Pizza Hut’s new Fit ‘N Delicious pizzas contain just half the cheese found in the company’s traditional pizzas.
Unlike earlier lean-product flops on the part of the fast-food industry – including Taco Bell’s Border Lites and McDonald’s McLean Deluxe these new products contain nothing in the way of reduced-fat ingredients and require no real reformulation. The fast-food goliaths have little to lose – even if consumers opt to keep the full-fat toppings.
Julie Hildebrand, a Pizza Hut spokesperson, told me the chain’s focus-group research indicated “people still liked the taste of the cheese they were used to on a Pizza Hut pizza and didn’t feel like they were sacrificing as much as with a low-fat cheese.”
Is this a trend in the making? If so, cheese manufacturers could be in trouble. According to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators, pizza now accounts for more than half of all cheese sales. In 2002 alone, pizzerias bought $2.5 billion worth of cheese. Although I could find no cheese-related sales figures for Taco Bell, the food long has played a starring role in our nation’s tacos, burritos and the like. Scared yet?
Even as Americans become more health-conscious, they refuse to compromise on taste. In reality, few reduced-fat cheeses provide the flavor – or the melting characteristics – of their full-fat counterparts.
Although product developers have “come a long way” with process cheese formulations, they’ve “still got problems” when it comes to creating palatable and functional reduced-fat natural cheese, says MaryAnne Drake, Ph.D., associate professor of food science at North Carolina State University. “Fat provides a lot of flavor and a lot of flavor-release aspects during chewing,” she adds.
Although I honestly do not believe these fast-food companies’ actions will radically reduce U.S. cheese consumption, I do believe a need exists for truly flavorful and functional reduced-fat products. Even Pizza Hut is not ruling out a future low-fat option, says Hildebrand, provided the cheese meets customer expectations.
It’s simply a matter of getting there.
Copyright Stagnito Publishing Nov 2003
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