Bel Group CEO Exclusive Part II: Generational shift and convenience demand in APAC to propel cheese market

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

The APAC cheese sector is being driven by a generational shift in consumer demand for nutrition, affordability and convenience. ©Bel Group
The APAC cheese sector is being driven by a generational shift in consumer demand for nutrition, affordability and convenience. ©Bel Group

Related tags Bel Group Cheese generations convenience

The APAC cheese sector is being driven by a generational shift in consumer demand for nutrition, affordability and convenience, all of which need to be met if the category is to fulfil its potential.

In the first part of our exclusive interview​ with Bel Group CEO Cecile Beliot, she shared the importance for cheese businesses to customise product localisation according to individual APAC markets.

In addition, she also believes that a generational shift in preferences and demands is offering a raft of new opportunities.

“The generational shift in preferences in APAC is very much in favour of cheese – previously well-being and health were less of a priority so cheese had to be marketed depending on mainly taste, but today’s teens and millennials have become super health-conscious so that is another area where cheese can come in,”​ she told FoodNavigator-Asia.

“One reason for this is that cheese is essentially a concentration of dairy nutrition in a small portion and because of this is also able to offer a convenient, ready-to-eat format in such an extent that many other forms of protein cannot.

“Bel is looking at this not as a traditional cheese maker, but our USP in this region is instead to offer portions of cheese nutrition in desired convenient formats – for instance our Laughing Cow cheese cubes or Babybel cheeses which can be conveniently popped into a handbag and eaten any time as a healthy snack.

“The other driving factor here is that cheese also ties in with the affordable nutrition trend which is ever more important during times of economic stress such as these – with food inflation everywhere, dairy is by far the most affordable protein compared to others such as meat or fish based on the price of 1kg of protein.

“This is a competitive edge for cheese especially in a market sensitive market like Asia, and a good opportunity for the category to establish itself as an accessible protein source for all consumers in this market.”

Cheese not only a dairy product

Despite being a traditionally dairy-focused cheese company, Bel believes that there is room for alternative versions of cheese in the market too and is not opposed to working with these as part of its portfolio.

“Plant-based dairy to us is not a competitor but more of an important complementary proposition,”​ Beliot said.

“Plant-based is actually very embedded in Asian consumption due to soy as a common protein source, and we see this as not only a good complementary offering to non-dairy consumers but also a means for us to work in terms of the sustainability topic.

“There is no straightforward answer when it comes to sustainbility though – in G20 countries  such as France and the United States, there is far too much protein in the diets here especially from animals and 70% of the CO2​ footprint is from dairy, so we want there to be a better balance between animal and plant-based proteins towards achieving the Paris Agreement.

“But in emerging countries, these are rapidly developing and middle class consumers are growing, and this is a good thing – but also means the demand for packaged food is growing and if they adopt the same diet as the G20 countries tomorrow, what will happen is we will go beyond the Paris Agreement trajectory by 260%.

“Right now, there is no doubt that emerging countries need animal protein as a source to feed their families, and we need to fight to give them more access to nutritional protein sources such as dairy and cheese – but at the same time, we must also fight to make sure that both these consumers and those in G20 markets have access to more good plant-based alternatives, so as to help to balance and decrease the CO2​ footprints across the board.”

Bel Group signed an agreement with biotechnology firm Climax Foods last year, which will be creating dairy-free versions of products in its Babybel, Laughing Cow, Boursin and Kiri portfolios. Bel also has its own in-house plant-based cheese brand called Nurishh.

“The key here is innovation from within the industry, which is why we are working with those with the biotech expertise to do this – there is really an increasing need to embrace the biotech revolution for protein if the goal is to make protein truly sustainable, nutritious and tasty,”​ she added.

“There are many ways that cheese can be part of this – these has already been cheese made using precision fermentation technology in the US, and we also believe that another good way will be to use alternative protein as a supplement inside dairy products.

“This would be particularly relevant for Asia, because although we know that processed cheese is a good way to provide accessible protein here, the number one challenge to providing those triangles here is the cost, as it is too expensive here to make it the top option for price-conscious consumers.

“The only way to up accessibility based on price in this market is to decrease the dairy content, but this in turn would reduce the protein content and we are not okay with that – so to overcome this, we are working with some superfoods to get biomass protein that costs much less than dairy but has the same nutritional profile although not same taste.

“We are looking to combine the two, and use the protein to enrich the cheese and create an accessible source of good protein from both dairy and alternative sources – this is not something that will be available tomorrow just yet, but maybe in five years or so, and is really a massive opportunity to improve the food system and bring better nutrition.”

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