While they may not appeal to everyone, processed cheese slices are a convenient staple that many keep in the fridge as a go-to snack or crowd-pleasing topper. The iconic plastic-wrapped orange squares continue to be a common fixture in Canadian food culture.
Although they may have all the markings of a modern-day invention, efforts to ‘process’ cheese for a longer shelf life actually began in 19th century Germany, and the first industrial manufactured products came from Switzerland in 1911. In 1928, Kraft introduced its first processed cheese product to the American and Canadian markets and over the years, numerous innovations were introduced to improve production, including the invention of the individually plastic-wrapped slices in 1956. Although the sale of processed cheese products is on the decline, Canadians still manage to consume over 5 pounds of processed cheese per person each year.
For the most part, consumers buy these individually wrapped slices for melting – whether in a perfectly browned grilled cheese sandwich or on top of a burger. But not every slice makes its way to the pan or grill; some are unwrapped and consumed on their own.
This research aims to explore differences in the flavour and sensory profiles of various brands of processed cheese slices to determine which aspects of the cheese are key drivers of liking.
Methods & Materials
The research recruited 50 females between the ages of 25 and 54 to our Central Location Testing facility in the Greater Toronto Area. All were principal grocery shoppers who regularly purchase and consume processed cheese slices at least once per month. The test included two National brands and two Private label brands, all purchased at local grocery stores.
Each participant tasted and evaluated one slice of each sample, each served on a plastic plate labeled with a 3-digit code. The samples were served unbranded, one at a time, in varied order. Participants were asked a series of detailed hedonic and ‘just about right’ questions regarding the appearance, flavour, and textural profiles of the cheese slices.
While the most common use for cheese slices is for melting in a grilled cheese or on a burger, a majority of respondents claimed to also eat the product in its raw state, in a sandwich, on crackers, or on its own. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1 – Common uses of processed cheese slices
This test focused on the sensory evaluation of the solid uncooked cheese.
Overall, there were no outstanding performances in this category in their ‘un-melted’ state. None of the four brands in our test array achieved particularly strong scores on the key measures of Overall Liking, Purchase Intent, or Flavour – but rather they all rated as quite mediocre. Three brands were grouped very closely on all performance measures, while one stood apart (directionally) as the consistent underdog. (see Figure 2)
Figure 2 – Top 2 Box Purchase Intent and Overall Liking
But despite this parity of liking, there were some substantial differences in the sensory profiles. The flavours of all four brands were surprisingly different from each other, although none of them seemed to get it quite right. Brands A and D had good levels of Creaminess, while Brands B and D got the level of Tanginess right. Although it had good saltiness, Brand C failed to hit the mark for the other attributes. (see Figure 3)
Figure 3 – Percentage of Respondents Rating Attribute “Just Right”
Importantly, none of the brands achieved the hurdle of 60% Just Right for strength of cheddar flavour, although Brands A and D came close. Brands A’s cheddar flavour was too strong, while Brand B and D flavours’ were too weak. Brand C’s flavour was polarizing, with some respondents finding the cheddar flavour too weak and some too strong. (See Figure 4)
Figure 4 – Perceptions of Cheddar Flavour
Perhaps not surprisingly, none of our samples had particularly high scores for their naturalness of colour or taste. But despite the ‘unnatural’ character of this category as a whole, Naturalness of Taste was an attribute which strongly correlated with Overall Liking and Overall Quality and was a key weakness of the underdog Brand C. (see Figure 5)
Figure 5 – Overall Liking and Perceptions of Naturalness of Taste and Overall Quality – Mean Scores
The majority of participants described Brand C as ‘Artificial.” (see Figure 6)
Figure 6 – Percentage of Respondents Describing Brand as “Artificial”
While the colour of the other brands was “Just Right”, Brand C was seen as Too Dark by almost half of respondents. The colour of this brand may have been a visual cue to a more artificial flavour. So as unlikely as it may seem, naturalness of flavour was a hidden driver of performance in this sensory space. (See Figure 7)
Figure 7 – Perceptions of Colour
Conclusions and Implications
The objective of this research was to investigate the sensory performance of processed cheese slices. We included both national and private label brands and recruited female consumers residing in one geographical area – the Greater Toronto Area.
Within this framework, we see that none of the products performed particularly well. Evaluated without the melt, just out of the wrapper and into the mouth, the outcome for all samples in our test was underwhelming. Perhaps a test of the same array of brands presented in a grilled cheese would have revealed a much different story, with higher overall appeal and a reversal of fortunes in performance. And certainly, branding plays a huge role in this category where legacy carries a big advantage.
Most consumers may not expect a processed cheese slice to be particularly natural or delicious. But even in this context, the best results were awarded to the most natural or perhaps the ‘least unnatural’ products, suggesting that increased attention to this hidden driver would help elevate the sensory performance.
For questions about this research, or how you can leverage consumer taste buds in your business, contact Andrew Scholes at email@example.com or (905) 456-0783.
Contract Testing Inc. is an industry leader in sensory evaluation and consumer product testing. We are the only sensory evaluation and consumer product research company with corporately managed test sites in both Canada and the United States.
With 30 years of experience, we are innovators in testing with consumers across all major food, beverage and household and personal care categories.