Author Ross Christieson, director of UK-based Landel-Mills Consulting, argues that if cheese manufacturers both increase their communication of the natural health properties of cheese as well as adding functional ingredients, the category could become larger than functional yoghurts or milk drinks.
This is based largely on the higher value of cheese over yoghurts.
The cheese sector does however have some catching up to do on milk drinks and functional yoghurts. Probiotic drinking yoghurt has been the fastest growing dairy product in the last five years, according to Euromonitor research, with a 52 per cent growth in probiotic 'little bottles' during 2003 giving them a retail sales value in the core European markets of €28 million.
This compares to a decline in plain and natural yoghurts of almost 2 per cent.
Cheese is however growing slightly faster, forecast to increase by 2-3 per cent yearly over the next five to 10 years, according to Christieson. This trend could see the cheese industry accounting for as much as 21.5 million tonnes production by 2010.
Yet there are few cheese products currently being marketed for their health benefits.
"It's not as obvious to make fortified cheese and not as easy," Christieson told NutraIngredients.com.
"There are more processing steps in cheese and therefore in probiotics for example, more science is required to find out what survives during the process. People are only doing that science now."
Europe and Asia have been the first regions to innovate in healthy cheese. Finnish dairy Valio has launched a probiotic cheese on its home market and in Belgium, while Sweden's Skane dairy has gained a health claim for its cholesterol-lowering cheese called Hjärtans Lust (Heart's Desire).
The Benecol brand also has a cholesterol-lowering cheese and the EU's approval for use of plant sterols in soft cheese last year looks set to grow this type of product.
More unusual is the development of cheese with added prebiotic fibre from Belgian firm Cosucra and DHA-enriched cheese available in Korea, which targets the cognitive health of children, the primary consumers of processed cheese.
Rondel Specialty Foods from Merrill, Wisconsin in the US is marketing the health benefits of garlic and onions in its spreadable cheese. Onions contain quercetin, an antioxidant chemical said to have anticancer, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
But the report also suggests that manufacturers could promote the natural health properties of cheese, including its high natural calcium and CLA content, evidence of bioactive peptides from the ripening process, and whey proteins.
"First it needs to be recognised that cheese in its own right has a host of purported nutraceutical properties. Communicating these natural attributes to the public is key to the future development of the sector," claims the report.
It identifies regions where such properties could be particularly successful. Concerns about osteoporosis in Asia for example could help sales of cheese marketed as being high in calcium, while probiotic and prebiotic cheese could do well in Japan where gastrointestinal health is a key concern.
But like all functional foods, the product's success will depend on consumer awareness and interest in health.
Dairy group Aveve launched a low-fat cheese containing lactobacillus casei in Belgium in 2000 and the product has seen yearly growth of between 20-25 per cent.
But the product is seeing stronger growth in Belgium than in some of its other markets, such as France, where awareness of functional foods is lower.
"It is important that the industry and its marketers see past the fact that 'cheese is a product rich in essential nutrients like protein, minerals and vitamins' and start articulating the benefits of cheese from a biofunctional and nutraceutical perspective," advises the report.