It’s a segment of the buying public that is certainly growing. According to Eurostat, part of population aged 65 or older in the EU is set to rise from 17% in 2010 to 30% in 2060. One in eight people will be aged 80 or older in 2060.
With this opportunity come the expectant challenges. There are parallels to be made with the children's category in terms of flavour, colour and texture demands. Both groups require a certain look, feel or taste in order for a food to be deemed palatable.
Perhaps the requirements of the elderly are more so with ingrained taste preferences that are hard to shake off or give up.
There is also the physical decline and sensory impairment that accompany age such as dysphagia - difficulty in chewing and swallowing food.
Progress with pureed foods
So what approaches have food makers turned to in order to cater to the elderly? Changes to texture have been the most popular. This is partly due to the relative ease in adjusting this factor during the reformulation process.
There are typically three levels of food texture modification. These often include foods that are soft, minced, moist or mashed, and pureed or ground.
Pureed foods in particular are considered the modification of choice as its soft, moist consistency is ideally suited for the elderly. Additionally minimal chewing effort is required to break pureed food down.
Pureed food can also handle the addition of a nutrient-rich liquid to ensure the final product meets the dietary requirements of the elderly.
“Nutrient dilution can occur if food is pureed with water,” said Dr Julie Cichero, lecturer and researcher with the University of Queensland in Australia.
“Nutrient-rich alternatives such as milk, butter, cream, cheese, gravy, creamy soup or sour cream could be used to add moisture to pureed food instead,” she stated in her study.
Headed up by the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA), the European Optifel project entitled: ‘Optimised Food Products for Elderly Populations’ is one example foods are being redefined in order to improve the eating experience of elderly populations.
Using vegetable and fruit-based products, which are amenable to texture manipulation, the project recently revealed results of a three year international research project.
“Products should be designed to create textures that suit different kinds of capabilities, and I think in terms of food industry there is a huge gap as well as opportunity," said. Dr Anwesha Sarkar, Optifel researcher and a lecturer of food science and nutrition at the University of Leeds.
"There is a lack of tailored food products and definitely there is room to design food of just-right texture to meet the varying needs of different elderly people.”
The loss of taste amongst the elderly raises an important issue in the use of flavours in food design.
Studies that have focused on this aspect have found the inclusion of oyster sauce, ginger and garlic along with foods that stimulate motor functions such as biting and chewing (such as the heat of chili or pungency of mustard) have been shown to increase food intake in the elderly.
According to Jacqueline Marcus, author of the publication: ‘Culinary Nutrition: The Science and Practice of Healthy Cooking’ ingredients and foods with high-tactile burn – such as curry, garlic, mustard and vinegar – are most resistant to flavour loss.
“Ingredients and foods with low-to-no tactile burn, such as apples, butter or grapes – are most susceptible to flavour loss,” she added.
“These may be important considerations for taste loss associated with Parkinson's disease.”
Flavour trends amongst the elderly are now moving towards bolder, more enhanced tastes and textures that need to be stronger to compensate for a decline in sensing taste, said Marcus.
It’s a view shared by Dr Isabelle Maitre, a lecturer in food processing at the agricultural school in Angers, France.
Her work that looked into how aging affects the perception of taste and texture found that a higher difference in sugar or salt was needed for elderly people living in Spain and France.
“My message to the food industry is that for most people, the sweeter the better,” she said.
“But you need to be careful with acidity and when we explore the capability and food of elderly people we should take their pleasure into account more.”
What colours count?
Very much like flavour the use of colours require special consideration amongst the older population having become accustomed to a certain appearance that is hard to change.
“My own hypothesis is that the eye, nose, tongue coordination with the brain concerning the appreciation (or otherwise) of any food is a protracted and complex activity and it takes a while for it to find an equilibrium,” said Dr Velamur Krishna Kumar, director at food ingredient consultants Giract.
“However, once that equilibrium is reached with respect to a particular food, the brain finds it difficult to break it.
“A blue colour food or a chocolate-smelling soup will find it very difficult to succeed in the market place.”
Research does indeed suggest that appearance counts for double amongst older subjects.
Brightly coloured foods are considered more appealing to weakening senses as they provoke greater salivary, gastric, pancreatic and intestinal secretions making them easier to digest.
The use of colour when combined with techniques such as foaming may also increase food appeal for this population.
Products designed to address the visual appeal of a food are already available on the market.
UK healthcare company Fresenius Kabi specialises in clinical nutrition that looks into improving the mouthfeel and consistency of foods.
Its Thick & Easy instant food thickener, a modified maize starch and maltodextrin mix, can be added to all hot and cold liquids, nutritional supplements and types of hot or cold pureed foods to develop a thicker consistency and prevent aspiration.
German company Biozoon’s seneoPro concept also combines innovations such as airy or stable foams, gels and thickened liquids with a visual variation designed to keep older consumers engaged with their food.
The seneoPro range consists of powder mixes that allow nutritional requirements to be met in different kinds of foods.
“Starters, main courses, desserts and snacks can be made which meet individual requirements, are balanced and above all optically appealing,” the company said. “Eating with enjoyment, pleasure and all the senses becomes possible again.”