Although ageing consumers represent a lucrative market sector, their tastes and nutritional needs are perhaps more varied than those of any other group. A wide range of ingredients and technologies is available to food product developers, but it is crucial to understand the diversity of the market, and to approach it with sensitivity.
The European population is ageing rapidly, but more than ever older consumers are aware of the importance of good nutrition in preventing age-related conditions, and are looking to food and supplements to ensure their long-term health.
Manufacturers have seized the opportunity, with a host of products tailored to ageing consumers. Over-65s have an estimated spending power of $7 trillion a year, according to Merrill Lynch, making it a very attractive market. Much of the focus in the healthy ageing market is on foods that preserve health and wellbeing as long as possible, but when age-related health problems do occur, products that help improve nutrition are vital.
According to Euromonitor International,
“The opportunity to develop products for the ageing is clear, as people are living longer as a result of healthier lifestyles and continuous medical advances. However, there is a difference of at least eight years across all regions between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy.”
One of the greatest nutrition challenges is in helping to close that gap.
Tackling textural challenges
Innovative companies are looking at food texture in particular, which can become a serious problem for ageing consumers. In the EU, up to 40% of those over 70 have difficulties with chewing and swallowing. Problems can range from an inability to chew whole muscle meat, to a tendency to inhale liquids at the other end of the textural spectrum.
Germany-based Biozoon offers a range of products that use texturisers like stable foams, gels and thickened liquids under its Smoothfood brand to make foods that are easy to swallow, while also keeping their visual appeal. A smooth-textured chicken leg, for example, would still have the form and colour of roasted chicken, using silicone moulds.
Biozoon CEO Mathias Kück said the company runs seminars in nursing homes to show staff how to use the Smoothfood products, and the concept is now being used in about 6-8% of nursing homes across Germany, as well as in other countries.
“The Smoothfood concept is always based on fresh food. You take a fresh food and it has to be transformed into a liquid form. This then needs to be transformed for the individual.”
Only providing the texturising ingredients means that personal and regional tastes are respected, which also has an impact on consumer acceptance. Research suggests the concept has a strong effect on appetite, with one recent trial resulting in weight gain of up to 2kg in six weeks.
“You can do it with anything: hot coffee, cucumber salad, or orange juice…It stimulates appetite, and improves quality of life and wellbeing,” Kück said.
Researchers are also looking at ways to use smell to improve appetite, and a UK-based company, Ode, makes a device that releases appetising fragrances intended for elderly consumers, including those with dementia who are prone to forgetting mealtimes. The scents include aromas like fresh orange juice, meaty hotpot and black forest gateau to stimulate appetite.
Flavour modified food is another important area, as older consumers tend to add more salt to their food as taste perception declines in later life, increasing the risk of high blood pressure and related health problems. World Action on Salt and Health recommends boosting flavour with savoury ingredients like black pepper, herbs and spices instead.
Functional and fortified foods
Many ageing consumers are not yet elderly, however, and there is a wide range of products targeting the growing number of people who want to preserve their current health for as long as possible. The fastest growing sector over the past five years has been for functional and fortified foods, according to Euromonitor, with products targeting bone and joint health and cardiovascular health among the best performing – although both segments have been in sharp decline.
In Europe, health claims regulations have restricted opportunities, leaving manufacturers reliant on a limited number of ingredients with approved claims, and naturally functional products, such as dairy for bone health.
Euromonitor says there are two main approaches to revive the heart and bone health markets, and both involve health claims: Either use ingredients that already have approved claims, or invest in the science needed for future health claim approvals. In the meantime, educating and engaging with consumers on a personal level could make a significant difference.
Naturally functional foods
Nevertheless, naturally healthy products are expected to outperform fortified and functional foods in the coming years, and health-conscious ageing consumers, who tend to have greater spending power than younger generations, are likely to drive growth.
“Consumers are looking for minimally processed or unprocessed products, in line with the clean label trend, with 100% natural ingredients and no artificial colourings or preservatives,” Euromonitor said.
Specifically, sales of ancient grains, green tea and plant-based protein coming from nuts and seeds are expected to increase as older consumers move toward naturally functional foods and beverages.
General health and wellness in mind
While there is a clear market for products that target specific health conditions, older consumers tend to be more health and nutrition conscious in general, and buy a disproportionate amount of organic food, for example. Most people also require less energy as they age, meaning there may be a market opportunity for diet foods targeted at the older generation. A recent Mintel survey found that French consumers aged 55 and over were more concerned about their intake of salt, sugar, fat, fibre and fruits and vegetables than any other age group.
Just don’t mention ageing
Apart from heart, bone and joint health, Mintel highlights other areas of interest to older consumers, including products for immunity, eye health and brain health – but warns against looking at ‘seniors’ as a single, homogenous market, and against marketing to older consumers on the basis of age alone.
“In many regions, such as Europe, it is not polite or desirable to draw attention to age and age-related health problems. Consequently, products with very overt claims related to ageing or the elderly may be a barrier to purchase."
Indeed, Mintel says that 80% of products with a ‘for seniors’ claim are launched in China or Japan, where ageing is a less delicate issue. Elsewhere, marketing that conjures images of a frail elderly person slumped in a chair, or a silver-haired couple taking a stroll in the sunset, is likely to turn off the very consumers to whom it aims to appeal.
If products are marketed to a defined older demographic, it may help to split this further into those aged 50-plus, 70-plus or 85-plus, Mintel suggests, rather than aiming for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to seniors’ nutrition.