Cheese has been known for centuries and has built very strong following in Europe and the Americas, now already becoming part of their main diet. Cheese made its way into the Asian region much later, however it is now slowly becoming part of our grocery basket as Asians start to experiment with all types of cheese. According to Vikki J.Nicholson-West, Senior Vice President, S.E.A Business Unit Director of US Dairy Export Council (USDEC), “There are more than 600 types of cheese from the US, and cheese exports to ASEAN is seeing strong growth, between now and 2021, we are expecting a 5-10% growth annually in this region.”
Cheese has wide applications and it opens up opportunities in food services, in industrial cheese manufacturing as well as cheese sold directly to retail stores. In terms of product applications, cheese can be applied into hundreds of products from snacks to bakery products to culinary dishes among others. Vikki said, “Singapore has a very eclectic and highly-evolved palate with the existence of a lot of specialty cheeses. There are lots of innovations and experimentation with cheese here. Indonesia, on the other hand, has lot of its cheese going into food services like cheddar; and manufacturing out of mozzarella, and we also see cream cheese with a bit of growth on the specialty segment.”
As 40% of the consumers in ASEAN are muslims, most of the cheese that came from the US are halal, however there are also non-halal cheese particularly specialty/artisan cheese varieties like wine infused/merlot cheese. For the US cheese exporters, both the food services and the retail segments in ASEAN are equally important markets as both are growing.
Vikki commented that 1 in 3 of Asians consume cheese 2 to 3 times a week. Dalilah Ghazalay, Regional Director S.E.A of US Dairy Export Council added, “We Asians are not naturally cheese eaters. We are looking at consumption of cheese by occasions, but as more and more Asians are travelling while the millenials are looking at new food experiences, demand for cheese will grow and develop. Cheese also provides nutrition with its high protein content.” Vikki added that cheese offers good nutrition from protein, calcium and vitamins both for the old and young consumers.
The application of cheese in ASEAN has now evolved further from merely just cheese sold in blocks or slices for breakfast. There are now hundreds of innovations which use cheese as one of the main ingredients. In Malaysia for instance, cheese has been applied to local street food from murtabak cheese to banana cheese fritters, and has even found its way into fine dining cuisines. Interestingly, we even have unique beverages with cheese like cheese tea from LiHO bubble tea stores in Singapore. This trend is not only apparent here but also in neigbouring countries like China. To western tastes, it may seem a wacky idea, but a ‘tea macchiato’ with cream cheese topping invented by a young Chinese businessman has made him a millionaire since he launched his first store, Hey Tea in 2012. And partly due to this craze, that a major dairy producer, Fonterra is now building 2 new cream cheese plants in New Zealand at a cost of more than US$100 million to supply to the growing demand in China.
Cheese is a unique product and presently, there is no close substitute to cheese. Vikki said, “The closest one can get is ‘cheese’ made from starches, vegetable oils or tropical fats…they look similar in color and form, but do not contain the same nutritional value as cheese.”
Although US is the largest producer of cheese, the country is not well-known in this part of the region for its cheese. Dalilah said, “Our main challenge is to tell the US cheese story. Already, cheeses from Europe, Australia and New Zealand are well-known here but consumers are not aware that US has more to offer with its wide range of cheeses including our award-winning ones.” In other words, there is a need to build consumer awareness that US is a producer of quality cheese.
Interestingly, the pattern of cheese consumption in Asia is not consistent and varies from one country to another. Dalilah added, “In countries like Korea and Japan, they love to have cheese in their diets as we can see the use of Korean noodles with cheese. Vietnam, on the other hand, is an interesting market, as they love their blue cheese – a very strong impactful cheese with a pungent flavor. And Vietnamese like to have the blue cheese on pizza.”
Vikki said, “Asia is a great region to work with US cheeses, and we can find wide application of cheese through working with reputable chefs, creating a unique Asian flavor and recipe with the use of high quality US cheese. We think that this is a great marriage, to bring together both strengths and to continue to grow and develop as we move forward.”
Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are 4 countries that will lead this region in terms of consumption growth. According to latest USDEC data, 32% of the consumption growth for cheese in Southeast Asia by 2021 will come from these 4 countries.