Mozzarella cheese focus group

This focus group was run by the Sensory Service Center at N.C. State University, on Saturday, March 25, 2023 from 1:30 – 4 p.m., and I was paid with a $75 Amazon gift card.


We were instructed to take a picture of any mozzarella cheese that was currently in our refrigerator, for which I submitted this photo:

Then we were to go to the grocery store we typically shop in, Publix for us, and take a picture of the mozzarella cheese we would buy if we needed some, and for which I submitted this photo:


I’ll call the moderator Christina and her two fellow graduate students, Kai and Robert. An interesting thing about this focus group was that it was for research that these 3 graduate students were doing. I’ve never participated in a taste test that wasn’t sponsored by a company to get comparative information about their products.

There were 4 participants, including myself, and the other three were women, two I’d guess in their 20s, the other in her 40s, and me (in my 60s). I’m going to call them Amber, Sandra, and Sharuthi.

Amber and Sharuthi were very shy and usually needed to be prodded to contribute, which are not the best qualities for a focus group participant. Sharuthi was very soft-spoken, so much so that I could hardly hear her a lot of the time, and she was sitting right beside me. I could see the moderator struggling to hear her at times. Plus, the research team was (both video and) audio recording the session, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be maximizing the volume when listening later to transcribe the meeting.


The first thing we did was to name “occasions” for which serving mozzarella cheese was likely, and the moderator wrote them on a white board. They included things like: breakfast/lunch/dinner, entertaining, watching sports, happy hours, and dinner parties.


Then we were asked to list ways we eat or use mozzarella cheese, and our answers included things like lasagna, chicken parmesan, pizza (and several other Italian dishes), bruschetta, Caprese salad, with crackers, as a snack, and as a topping.


After a short discussion of how to refer to the various shapes and sizes of cheese, which the moderator started off as referring to as “types” but quickly realizing that was too ambiguous, we settled on “forms.”

The forms we listed included balls, shredded, grated, block, fresh, cubes, diced, slices, food-processed, string, and wheels.

Focusing on block cheese

Then we listed things we make specifically using block mozzarella cheese. I noted that we rarely buy shredded or sliced cheese, so when we get the block home, we typically shred (with a food processor) one portion of it, and slice another portion of it—and store both in the fridge in Tupperware and label them. And these are the ways we typically use each form:

Block (shredded)

  • Salad topper
  • Pizza topper
  • Lasagna
  • Spaghetti squash burrito boats
  • Chicken parmesan
  • Stuffed peppers

Block (sliced)

  • Italian sandwiches/wraps
  • Lasagna
  • Stromboli
  • On crackers


Once we made all those lists, we discussed a lot of things about mozzarella cheese, some of which were:

  • What criteria do we use when buying mozzarella cheese? (And somewhat surprisingly to me, the #1 criteria for all 4 of us was price, and that was primarily because all of us were of the opinion that “all mozzarella cheeses are pretty much the same.”)
  • When we buy a certain form of cheese (e.g., shredded, sliced), does it “perform” as expected? (Oddly framed question, IMHO.)
  • Why do we use mozzarella cheese in the things that we make with it?
  • Could a different type of cheese be substituted for the mozzarella in any or all of these dishes?
  • Does the packaging (e.g., colors, sizes, forms, reusable ziplock package, visibility of the cheese itself) affect your purchasing decision?

We looked at a list of claims that are made or images that are on cheese packages—do we even look at them, do we know what they mean, and how (if at all) they influence our purchasing decision.

There are so many of them, and the ones on a list we looked at included: produced locally, pasteurized, provides calcium and protein, hand-selected, rBST free, non-GMO, antibiotic free, kosher, vegetarian, vegan, all-natural, Italian, made in Italy, #1 in Italy, made from grass-fed cows, B Corporation certified, produced by a company that’s been in business for more than 75 years, produced by a farmer who’s been in business for more than 75 years, picture of a cow on it, picture of an Italian flag on it.

Preference ordering

For the next part of the meeting, they brought out a tray for each of us with these 6 packages of block mozzarella cheese on it:

Straight away, I started hoping they were going to let us take all these with us when the focus group was over. (Spoiler alert: That did not happen.)

They asked us to put these in the order of preference—without consideration of cost—with most preferred one first. These are already in the order that I ended up putting mine in. We then had to say why we chose the order we did.

The short version of my thoughts were:

  1. If cost wasn’t an object, I’d like to try the two, what looked like, “high-end” choices.
  2. I’ve had the Kraft before, and I know I like it, and it’s the perfect size to cut up to have with crackers at happy hours.
  3. I’m actually turned off with the “organic” label, and this is not only organic, the word is in its company name.
  4. I don’t shop at any of Sam Walton’s stores (e.g., Walmart, Sam’s Club), so I would never buy the Great Value brand.


The next best possible thing to taking home all of these cheeses would be sampling each one, and that’s exactly what happened next!

They brought out another tray with about a half-inch by one-inch block of each of those brands, and we took a bite of each one, making notes about them, which we shared afterwards.

A summary of my thoughts:

  • Galbani – I was surprised at the “burst of flavor” I experienced when biting into it. It was perhaps a little buttery tasting to me and a good consistency.
  • Polly-O – I thought pretty much the same with this one and wasn’t sure I could discern them if I was blindfolded, although this brand seemed to be a little softer to me.
  • Kraft – I found this the closest in texture to what I think of when I think of block cheese. It seemed like it would easily cut into squares for happy hour appetizers. 😄
  • Organic Valley – I did not like this one at all. It had a sharp bite, and it was closest to a “stinky cheese,” which I don’t like.
  • Great Value (whole milk) – This was just “meh” to me, but you already know I’m biased against this store brand, and this one actually did something none of the others did, which was stick to my teeth a little as I was chewing it.
  • Great Value (part skim) – I thought this one was milder, and a little softer, than the whole milk one, but again, wouldn’t buy it.


We finished up right at 2 hours as scheduled, were thanked profusely for our participation, and told that we’d get our “honorarium” on Wednesday, because they still had two more sessions to do with other participants.

Not sure why that precludes us getting our honorarium now, but hey, that’s just me.

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