“Food manufacturers have developed numerous high-energy drinks designed to supply seniors with the proper level of nutrition. The drinks are super effective in delivering nourishment, but they fall short of supplying consumers with the gratification otherwise experienced through eating,” said Helge Bergslien, knowledge facilitator at NCE Culinology, one of the participating institutes in the research project
With this in mind, the researchers are investigating the full range of problems faced by older consumers, such as difficulties swallowing caused by physiological changes in the oral cavity and throat, a reduced sense of smell and taste that lessens appetite and nutrient deficiencies.
“It’s not just about boiling and mashing carrots,” said Jan Thomas Rosnes, senior scientist at applied food research institute Nofima. His research group will examine the way texturisers like potato powder, mashed potato, egg white, tapioca, gelatin, pea starch, and soya granulate, as well as hydro colloids such as agar, gellan, xanthan, kappa-carrageenan, iota-carrageenan and low methoxyl pectin, can be used to create food products.
After adding one or a mixture of modifiers to ingredients such as root vegetables, cod, salmon, pork and beef – dairy products are in the pipeline – Rosnes and his team reconstruct foods and then analyse the texture at the same temperature the food is eaten at (50 – 60°C).
Meanwhile, close collaboration with chefs at Norway’s culinary institute in Stavanger, the Gastronomisk Institutt, means the appearance and presentation of dishes and products will also be taken into account – an
important aspect in stimulating appetite, they say.
Project managerat the Gastronomisk Institutt and molecular gastonomist, Guro Helgesdotter Rognså, said producing food with the desired consistency that is still appealing in terms of flavour and colour has been challenging. “Another challenge is that this group of consumers is often not able to eat normal portions. Therefore, the food needs to be nutrient, vitamin and energy dense. Vegetable elements are therefore enriched with fats and proteins, but on the other hand, additions have to be limited, in order to keep the flavor and appearance - the resemblance- of the main ingredient.”
In addition to aesthetic considerations, the scientists are also investigating practical concerns such as the shelf life of the modified food, as well the impact of temperature changes on the colour, fluid loss and nutritional content throughout the manufacturing, transporting, cool storage, freezing and heating processes.
Fear of failure
The ultimate aim of the project is to see these specialist food products on mainstream supermarket shelves, and the researchers have been working with some large Norwegian food manufacturers to speed up the process.
Norway currently has a population of around 5 million and will see its proportion of seniors rise to 1.2 million by 2030 with the greatest increase in those aged 91 or more, according to data from Statistics Norway. And although they are aware of the huge potential of this consumer base, many manufacturers are missing out on a potentially lucrative market.
Rosnes said manufacturers were still reticent about investing in a category where there so many possible marketing pitfalls over a product’s presentation, packaging or the way it is labelled.
“Several producers have shown great interest in the products [we are developing], but they are still ‘waiting’ for a market to open up,” he said.
“To call these products ‘food for elderly persons’ may not be wise – many people between 60 and 80 do not feel that they are old. [But] I believe that when the first producer has success with a product in this category, many others will follow up with similar products.”