Age does not determine eating capability but can affect flavour perception, say researchers

By Louis Gore-Langton

- Last updated on GMT

The Optifel project found that food design should not be based on age ©iStock
The Optifel project found that food design should not be based on age ©iStock

Related tags Food Ageing Gerontology

Flavour perception, but not necessarily texture, weakens with age and new product developers need to take this into account, according to researchers at the Optifel conference in Paris.

Yesterday marked the final report and closure of Optifel, a three year international research project into how food can be improved for the ever growing elderly population.

Optifel was started in order to address the growing nutritional needs of Europe’s seniors.

The population presents an enormous market with specialised requirements and to which nutrition is of increased importance.

Catherine Renard, scientific coordinator for Optifel, spoke to FoodNavigator at the conference: “Optifel started from our feeling that there is a great lack in terms of the quality of food designed for [the elderly] and there are solutions that have been medically conceived, not conceived by the food industry. Optifel is aiming to bridge this gap.”

According to Eurostat, the population of those over the age of 80 is expected to more than double by 2050, with one in eight people expected to be 80 or over by this time.

Those aged 65 or over are also expected to double by 2060, and by 2080 will account for almost 30% of the total European population.

Does age matter?

Dr. Anwesha Sarkar, a lecturer at the school of food science and nutrition at the University of Leeds, said her research with optifel sought to determine an objective measurement for the oral capabilities of elderly people.

“There are many elderly people who have problems with chewing and swallowing and so on, and we wanted to establish objective parameters for differentiating elderly people. One thing that we found was that age is definitely not a reliable parameter for determining this – food should be designed on the basis of oral processing capabilities.

"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 since most people are getting older as we can see from the demographics," ​she said.

"A lot can be done with further research into optimising texture taking into account oral processing parameters.

"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.” 

Doors of perception

Dr. Isabelle Maitre, a lecturer in food processing at the agricultural school in Angers, France presented research into how aging affects the perception of taste and texture.

“Our question was what should the characteristics of a product be in terms of sweetness or sourness for elderly people; we worked with various elderly people living in Spain and France in order to see what they taste and what they like.

“We found that the ability to discriminate between different flavours such as sweet or salt does decrease with age, and so you need a higher difference in sugar or salt for these categories.

“My message to the food industry is that for most people, the sweeter the better, 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.”

Optifel began in 2013 and was coordinated by France's National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) and ran in collaboration with 26 different organisations and universities throughout Europe, including University of Leeds and the Research Institute for Horticulture in Poland.

The project was originally granted €3 million by the EU’s seventh framework programme for research and development (FP7) which officially ended in 2013, although projects such as Optifel have continued to receive funding.

Catherine Renard said plans for further research are already underway: “We have plans for two different projects – one about food for elderly people to see if the solutions we have found so far work in the long run, and a second project about plant proteins – something I think it’s important to go further into this topic as it has good taste, good nutrition and is sustainable.”

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