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Cracking the Cream Cheese Code June 19, 2006

Posted by tkcollier in Business, Economy & Business, Food, Science & Technology.
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Wired 14.06: Schmear Campaign
Kraft, which has been perfecting its Philadelphia-brand cheese for more than 75 years, closely guards its manufacturing secrets, keeping them in a vault in Chicago. What it knows, it isn’t sharing. The company controls nearly 70 percent of the $800 million market.

At the moment, Schreiber Foods is in the best position to challenge Kraft’s dominance. Schreiber is the world’s largest privately held cheese company, generating more than $3 billion in annual revenue. It jumped into the cream cheese business only four years ago but moved aggressively, buying manufacturers that supply private-label super-market brands. Schreiber is now the number two producer, controlling an estimated 25 percent of the market.

Scientifically, it’s one of the trickier dairy products. In their natural state, the protein molecules in milk have a negative charge, so they repel one another – that’s what keeps milk liquid. To solidify it (that is, turn it into cheese), this repellency must be overcome. Makers of cheddar and mozzarella usually rely on enzymes in rennet – a substance derived from the stomach lining of young calves – to attack the protein molecules and shear off the section bearing the electrical charge. Cream cheese is the result of a more technical procedure. Acid-secreting bacteria are added to the milk, and the decreasing pH flips the chargeof some of the milk’s proteins. The positively charged molecules attract the negatively charged ones, coagulating the liquid and eventually turning it solid.

The key is getting the cheese to an isoelectric state – the point at which half of its proteins are positive and half negative. Left alone, the bacteria will continue producing acid, giving all the molecules a positive charge and turning the mixture back into a liquid. To stop the acidification, the cheese is heated until the bacteria dies. The cheese maker has to anticipate the isoelectric state and kill the bacteria at the right time. Lucey’s research demonstrates that variations in flavor and texture are largely determined by subtle changes in the timing of this process. Cream cheese also has a higher fat content than most cheeses, and since fat repels water, additives such as guar and carob gums are introduced to bind the water. Without these so-called stabilizers, water tends to separate from the cheese, leaving a hardened gel. Lucey’s experiments have isolated the basic elements – protein, fat, stabilizer, water – and explored the effects of varying each one. His writings are a sort of guidebook to the inner workings of cream cheese, and they are arming Kraft’s competitors with new insights and production techniques.

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