Demographic trends such as a low birth rate and lengthening life expectancy mean that a large proportion of the population is over the age of 65. This trend is expected to accelerate.
According to data from the European Commission, “intensive population ageing” through to 2030 will lead to an increase in the proportion of people aged over 65 from 17.4% to 25.6% of the total European population.
“It is really a global challenge,” Professor Wender Bredie, professor of sensory science at the University of Copenhagen, explained.
”One can see in the demographic development that many countries see their life expectancy grow and the population is shifting from a traditional pyramid shape, with very few of the very old people on top, towards a cup shape with a much greater proportion in the old and very old segment on the top.”
Meeting the needs of this significant and growing consumer segment requires specialised innovation efforts. ”These are the people that are most in need of foods with a higher nutritional density and changes in flavour and texture to compensate for losses in sensory functions,” Professor Bredie told FoodNavigator.
Professor Bredie will be talking alongside other leading speakers at Flarour Horizons Flavour Talk conference and exhibition. The event is being staged next week in Amsterdam (13-14 March), providing an opportunity to hear from those at the forefront of flavour innovation and technology. FoodNavigator will bring you live coverage from the event.
Finding the flavour
Flavour perception is an important factor that shapes our dietary decisions. Taste and smell losses occur with ageing. These changes may decrease our enjoyment of food. As Professor Bredie noted: “Eating a piece of meat or raw vegetables without flavour is like a chewing gum or candy without taste and not very attractive.”
The loss of taste perception in older people can therefore result in reduced food consumption, negatively influencing the nutritional status of elderly people. Those who are frail are especially vulnerable and this gives rise to a large-scale population health problem.
Flavour compensation could be one option to combat this issue – but tailoring solutions to individual preferences represents a significant barrier. “Increasing the levels of taste and flavour compounds might be used in some cases, but it requires a lot of work to find out the individual preferences, especially in the very old,” explained Professor Bredie, whose research interests include food preferences from a lifespan and cultural perspective.
“The loss of flavour sensing is not the same for everybody, some lose a specific taste like salty, whereas others cannot detect coffee so well anymore.”
Research suggests cinnamon is a flavour that is retained in old age. “We think this may be due to the subtle level of oral and nasal irritation that is delivered by cinnamon together with the typical smell. It is known that the irritation sense remains better intact. Those flavours that are learnt to have an irritation component may perform better in older age but not much have been researched in this area,” Professor Bredie said.
Just adding pepper will probably not solve the issue – but this understanding could inform more nuanced flavour development in products targeting healthy ageing. “One could for instance consider working with curry blends with low levels of capsaicin and adding this to soups or meat balls,” Professor Bredie suggested.
But there are limits: products should stray too far from what older consumers are used to eating. “Older consumers have a clear view on what they like and do not like to eat and are not so willing to change their preferences anymore, unless they can see a clear advantage,” the Denmark-based researcher suggested.
Texture and palatability
The taste challenge is compounded by the fact that many older consumers also have difficulty chewing and swallowing. In this instance, the texture of food is vital.
“A second challenge is for those old people that lose their capacity in chewing and have difficulties in swallowing foods. These people suffer from dysphagia and there are again different degrees of severity in the functional decline.
“Special foods are designed to give a greater palatability for those people with dysphagia. However, flavour properties of these foods and meals should be improved significantly. The challenge is that these modified textures with give different flavour release properties and flavour composition needs to be adjusted to this,” Professor Bredie suggested.
The complex and interconnected nature of these challenges mean they are not “easily solved”.
Professor Bredie continued: “One could design foods for dysphagia, which look great have a good texture functionality, making them easier to disintegrate in the mouth. However, optimisation of flavour properties to make these foods appetising is a real challenge and much work is needed to make these foods mimic the foods these elderly people liked to eat before. One should also think about how to create mouthfeel that is attractive, without having to chew too much.”
Nutritionally dense foods
To these issues can be added the need to deliver nutritionally dense foods that meet the physiological requirements of older people. This necessitates the design of protein rich, energy dense foods that also deliver appropriate levels of other nutrients such as calcium.
“In principle, this seems an easy job, but one has to consider optimising the flavour and texture of these foods,” Professor Bredie said.
Other factors also need to be taken into account: “Higher energy dense foods and protein enrichment could lead to smaller portion sizes due to satiety mechanisms. High protein foods tend to provide a higher satiation and optima between protein intake and food composition should not be overlooked.
“There are also challenges for gut microbiota. The standardised foods at elderly homes tend to remove the variability in gut microflora and some studies are indicating that less health promoting microorganisms become dominant species in elderly in institutionalised homes. One could consider rethinking functionality of foods, for instance finger foods as in between meals, that may help in delivering microflora that can keep up a health gut microbiota.”
What’s the solution?
Professor Bredie said that there is “significant interest” from the food industry to develop products that meet these requirements. In research, elderly sensory panels have been established to help in product development.
An “integrated” approach is required – one that recognises the complex needs of diverse sub-groups.
“For the young elderly, who are active and still have a good health the issue will be more on designing foods with more nutritional functionality. As long as one could design foods close to the existing preferences, they would work. However, the very old and fragile elderly… are increasing in numbers but have diverse needs. It will not be so easy to work with one food concept."
The challenge for the sector is to see how wide an assortment of diverse foods can be developed while still delivering on convenience and price.
Added to this can be a reluctance from consumers themselves to buy foods that are designed for their nutritional needs or decline in sensory function. “Many consumers are not aware of these needs and changes and will therefore not consider such “specialty” foods relevant for them. How to make these foods appeal to the younger elderly is besides good design thinking also a marketing challenge. These consumers need to learn to understand that these foods are good for them.”
Professor Bredie concluded: “There is a need for wise product development where companies have an integrated view on designing these foods for the older segment in the population.
“Think functionality, understand consumer segments and motives, consider educating healthy active elderly to adopt to new flavours and functional foods.”