Europe is ageing. The population of older people (those aged 65 years or more) in the EU-27 will increase significantly in coming years, rising from 90.5m at the start of 2019 to reach 129.8m by 2050, according to Eurostat.
Driven by falling birthrates and increasing life expectancy, the World Health Organization forecasts that, by 2030, there will be 44 ‘super-aged’ countries where more than 20% of the population is over 65, including Italy, Germany and the UK.
This is a large, growing, and relatively affluent consumer cohort, with a distinct set of nutritional priorities.
Currently, the number of new products launched that cater to ‘silver surfers’ and ‘baby boomers’ may seem unsubstantial when compared to trendy NPD aimed at millennials or Gen Z. But Importaco’s innovation and quality Director General Teresa Cercós believes that an awareness of demographic trends and the important role the food industry can play in healthy ageing is boosting innovation in the area.
“You can see it as a problem, but you can also see it as an opportunity. We work in the food sector; we can make life easy for those ageing,” she told us.
Importaco is a business-to-business nuts, dried fruit and mineral water supplier with a turnover of more than €700m. The company operates 17 factories throughout Europe and, following the integration of Italian peer Besana, the Spanish supplier has a global presence in 34 markets including Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Poland and the UK.
Importaco works alongside ‘big brands’ developing products ‘side-by-side’ with its customers. And Cercós reports an up-tick in innovation around products that meet the needs of older people.
“Everybody is targeting people who are ageing,” she told FoodNavigator. “The European population is getting older... everybody in Europe is really worried about this trend and everybody is thinking about how to help older people live better lives. At the end of the day, we need to do as much as we can for them.”
Packed with nut-rients
Importaco has identified healthy ageing as a long-term trend that it can leverage as the company works towards its goal of doubling its share in the ingredients market by 2024.
Cercós stressed that nuts are a natural nutritional source that is particularly well-placed to help meet the dietary needs of older people.
“There are many problems with ageing, such as a higher risk of certain diseases and illnesses. This includes diabetes and cardiovascular problems too, where risk increases with age,” she noted.
Approximately 25% of people aged over 60 have diabetes and cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among people 65 plus.
“Nuts are rich in monosaturated and polyunsaturated acids, which means they are really good for heart disease and cholesterol problems,” she revealed.
“Nuts are also rich in calcium. We know that women, when we start to get older, have problems like osteoporosis. Almonds, for example, are very rich in calcium.”
Nuts have other nutritional benefits. Several nuts are among the dietary plants with the highest content of antioxidants. Of the tree nuts, walnuts, pecans and chestnuts have the highest contents of antioxidants. Some scientific studies show that walnuts could contain more than 20mmol antioxidants per 100g.
Nuts can also offer a good source of protein, an important consideration in healthy ageing. The European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that older people should consume 25-50% more protein than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
In nuts with peels, it is also possible to have high levels of fibre, which is important for intestinal health, Cercós continued.
Nuts are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Cercós said that 20 years ago, when she first joined Importaco, consumers viewed nuts warily because of their high-fat content, which they associated with possible weight gain. Today, these attitudes have changed completely.
“When I started to work at Importaco, when we were making queries about the consumption of nuts, people were really worried about the fatty acids and how they could contribute to weight [gain]. They used to link increasing your weight with eating nuts.
“Science has demonstrated that when we supplement our diet with nuts, not many people put on weight. Nuts in some diets have helped people to lose weight. There is a lot of evidence that good fats are inside nuts.”
Nuts pack a powerful nutritional punch, she concluded. “A nut is a seed and like a seed it has to be full of nutrients because otherwise the plant would not grow. That's why the seed or nut is so nutritious.
“We are in front of a really good product for ageing - but for all the types of consumers.”
Innovating for older people
Importaco is currently working on a line of products specifically targeting personalisation. The company expects to bring the range to the market in the next six- to eight months.
So, what does innovation for older people look like? Alongside a strong nutritional story, Cercós said that a number of other issues need to be taken into account when developing product formats.
For instance, as we age it is not unusual for our sense of taste and smell to fade. “Older people start to lose their sense of taste and not feel the flavour as they used to do,” the innovation expert noted.
Texture and mouthfeel must also be taken into consideration. “We are working on pastes, little bites, because ageing people have dental problems... and issues with mastication… It is a good format because it is easy to chew, it is easy to swallow, and it is good for them.”
In the longer term, Cercós believes that personalised nutrition will play a greater role in the segment and Importaco is working on developing personalised products leveraging scientific advances in our understanding of DNA.
“It is not only in the shape of the product or the texture of the product. We are also working on some products with personalisation. We have several projects on that side,” she revealed.
“Each human is different. It seems like we are quite similar, but we are not… We respond in a different way to different foods. What they call normal responses - there is a big part of the population that answers in the same way - but there is another part that hyper-reacts or doesn't react. That is how we are working with nuts now.”
As Importaco works on innovation projects, the company has placed deep consumer insight and neuroscience at the heart of its approach.
"We have learned a lot about neuroscience in the last five years. We studied market trends and then started a project in order to understand how our standard products were perceived by our customers.
“This neuroscience approach has been really interesting in order to understand which products and which parameters matter to consumers.”
This has been applied to another project Importaco is developing – mixes related to health care. “They are not yet launched in the market, we are still developing them, but everything is based in neuroscience. Not what we think is good for the market, not what the consumer is telling us engages them, but what they are really feeling when they eat our products.”