Dairy products once were rich and creamy, close to the cow. Many of today's consumers, however, worry about calories, cholesterol and convenience, and buy cheese with guar gum instead of fat, or milk flavored with chocolate, orange and brandy.
Just as the meat industries have bent to the shape of a new consumer, the dairy industry has tried to please all manner of eaters starting in the 1950s, when skim milk was introduced.But until recently the dairy industry responded sluggishly to changes in consumer demands, said Phil Lem-pert, whose Lempert Report follows food trends.
According to the United Dairy Industry Association, 1,348 dairy products were introduced in 1989 and 847 in the first seven months of last year. A typical supermarket carries 125 brands, flavors and sizes of yogurt alone, the association says.
Almost 40 percent of the new dairy products introduced in 1989 were "light," said Jerry Dryer, an industry consultant based in Arlington Heights, Ill.
"There are certainly all manner of low-fat, reduced-fat and skim dairy products," said Jeffrey Blumberg, associate director and senior scientist at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. "I think that you can certainly see that in cheeses, for example. I think that's a wonderful effort and should be encouraged."
But to Lempert, many of the low-fat cheeses need work. For the most part, they don't taste good enough, he said.
One popular product in the dairy case isn't dairy at all - margarine. And because of government standards for things such as cheese, a producer that lowers the fat substantially may be forced to call the result "imitation" cheese, which can make marketing tricky.
Such changes make it particularly important for consumers to read labels. Is the product lower in total fat? Saturated fat? Lactose-reduced? Calcium-fortified? By how much? What ingredients are used as replacements?
Depending on the changes made, taste or texture may be sacrificed.
Lempert predicts a backlash when consumers understand that "to take the fat out, you're going to have to put something back in."
Some dairylike foods are made with soy products. In others, thickening and smoothing agents such as locust bean gum, carob bean gum and carrageenan are used.
"By and large, I don't think there is no concern about the safety, but to the extent that more and more processing is needed, you lose nutrient density," Blumberg said.
Citing research showing that fat is consumers' No. 1 dietary concern, Pollio Dairy Products Corp. recently introduced in five states non-fat ricotta and mozarella cheeses.
The ricotta, for example, has 25 calories per ounce and is fat free, compared with its whole milk ricotta, which has 50 calories an ounce, 36 of them from fat, the company says. The cheese contains skim milk, vinegar, salt, locust bean gum, guar gum and vitamin A palmitate.
The company has plenty of company. There are reduced-fat versions of nearly every dairy product, including ice cream.
But of all the new products, Lempert estimates there are but a dozen real innovations; many, he said, are "me-too products," copies of other companies' foods.
Sometimes, the new product is better than the original.
"All of a sudden the dairies are working hard to have skim milk with mouth feel," by pumping milk solids back into milk after the fat is removed, Lempert said. The result is skim milk that tastes thick and substantial.
Health authorities have repeatedly advised consumers to reduce the fat, particularly saturated fat, in their diets. "But if there are not products available to do that, then it's hard to comply," said Blumberg, who is working with Promise spread analyzing the nutrition knowledge and eating habits of 45,000 people who responded to a survey.
But it remains unknown whether fat substitutes will help.
"It comes down to balance," Lempert said. "And that's not the American way. It's the American way to be extremists."