Sweet, natural and cheesy with a healthy dose of indulgence could describe the new cultured and cheese products that hit retail shelves this past year - or it could sum up an episode of  “The Hills,” MTV’s reality show that follows twenty-something Californians through their love lives, friendships and careers.

It’s been an exciting year for both groups and consumers can’t seem to get enough of either. Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data show yogurt and yogurt drink category dollar sales grew by 5 percent to $3.5 billion.

Some of this growth is no doubt due to the popularity of yogurt products fortified with fiber, protein and probiotics. It’s clear from processors latest developments that yogurt has become their go-to product for the addition of functional ingredients.

This year saw The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., launch Light & Fit 0% Plus, a low-calorie, calcium and vitamin D and B2-rich yogurt that also is high in protein and vitamin A. Dannon bills the nonfat product as a healthy snack that can help women manage their weight. Also new this year is Breyers Light! Boosts Immunity from Breyers Yogurt. Fortified with “extra helpings of vitamins A and D and extra calcium,” Breyers Light! contains probiotics to “help strengthen your body’s immune system,” says the company, which is owned by Catterton Partners Greenwich, Conn.

Category leader General Mills said its Yoplait net sales rose14 percent, “led by Yoplait Light yogurt, Yo-Plus yogurt with probiotic cultures and fiber, and introductory shipments of new Fiber One yogurt.” Fiber One yogurt contains 20 percent of the recommended daily value of fiber as well as vitamins A and D.

Greek yogurt, which is strained and creamier than traditional yogurt, also saw gains. With new items from Johnstown, N.Y.-based Agro Farma Inc.’s Chobani Greek Yogurt and 3 Greek Gods, Mountlake Terrace, Wash., the category is receiving attention as part of a healthy “Mediterranean diet.”

Also making headway into the mainstream is kefir. At Morton Grove, Ill.-based kefir processor Lifeway Foods, total sales were up 29 percent year-over-year at year-end 2007. Not to be forgotten - certain cheese categories also enjoyed increased sales over the last year. As reported in a recent cheese update in Dairy Foods magazine, category trends this year include Hispanic cheeses, artisanal and natural cheeses, cheeses made using sustainable practices and cheese with added functionality. Evidence of these trends includes:

  • The International Dairy Foods Association reported that Mexican/Latin cheese sales were up 19 percent year-over-year early last year.

  • DCI Cheese Co., Richfield, Wis., introduced organic domestic Parmesan and organic 4-oz. Goat Log under its Organic Creamery branded line of specialty cheeses. DCI says both are USDA certified organic, 100 percent natural, and produced without the use of synthetic growth hormones.

  • Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., recently launched Kraft Natural Cheese Made with 2% Milk – No Added Growth Hormones, which is made from cow’s milk that has not been treated with rbST growth hormones.