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Novel foods for elderly consumers

Lotte van der Zanden of Wageningen University in the Netherlands sheds light on the needs and wants of elderly consumers and looks at how novel, enriched foods might be targeted at the elderly.

Although elderly consumers are often assumed to be a relatively uniform group, they are actually more diverse than younger consumer populations [1]. While the elderly might all need the same foods, they do not necessarily want the same foods.

Needs of the elderly

As adults age, their bodies become less efficient at absorbing and metabolising nutrients and they need to take in more nutrients than when they were younger. This is challenging, however, because consumers tend to reduce rather than increase their food consumption with increasing age. Food may not taste as nice as it did before (due to changes in sensory function), it may be
more troublesome to buy foods or prepare meals (due to changes in mobility and dexterity) and certain foods may become difficult to consume (due to changes in oral health). Importantly, many elderly people also experience a loss in appetite. As a result, the elderly are a group at risk of nutritional deficiencies [2]. Promoting nutrient intake in the elderly is more important now than ever, because life expectancy is increasing and the world population is greying rapidly. It has been predicted that the proportion of elderly aged over 65 in Europe will rise to 30% in 2060, which is due to the ageing of the large baby boom generation born between 1943 and 1964.The elderly population is the group most likely to need longterm health care services, thus the growth of this group will increase the demand for healthcare. At the same time, because the elderly population is growing relative to the working population, there will be less income from taxes to support the healthcare system. Improving the diets of elderly consumers will likely provide some relief; it will increase the quality of the later years in life and help the elderly to live independently for longer, thereby reducing both healthcare costs and strain on the healthcare system.

Increasing nutrient intake

Simply trying to motivate the elderly to consume more food is unlikely to be successful, given that their tendency to eat too little is the source of the problem. A more promising approach is the commercialisation of nutrientenriched foods for elderly, a type of functional food. Enriched foods look just like normal food products (Figure 1), but their nutritional value is improved either by adding nutrients or by increasing existing nutrient levels in the product. Because enriched foods are relatively nutrient-dense, they can increase nutrient intake in the elderly without lowering their overall energy intake. Importantly, elderly consumers are willing to spend money on innovative products, like enriched foods, that meet their wants and needs. In fact, enriched foods have been found to be a more acceptable source of nutrients to the elderly than the more traditional food supplements [3]. However, the development of successful innovative products is challenging. Across the whole consumer population, only about 15% of new product ideas and 60% of new products that are introduced in the market are commercially successful [4]. Due to specific challenges in the development and marketing of functional foods, failure rates in this product segment are likely to exceed these numbers. Although technological advances make it possible to enrich virtually any food product, not all combinations of base product and functional ingredients are well-received by consumers [5]. For example, yoghurt enriched with fish oil may fulfil the needs of consumers who need to reduce their cholesterol level, but the expected impact of fish oil on the taste of the product is likely to cause product rejection. In developing enriched foods, it is especially important to listen to what the consumer wants.

What foods do the elderly want?

For a long time, the elderly consumer population was considered to be a uniform group [1] and products and advertisements were based on age-related stereotypes. Since the 1990s, researchers and companies shave started to recognise that elderly consumers are actually very heterogeneous (Figure 2). The elderly have had a lifetime of experiences that have shaped their individual values, habits and preferences. Although most elderly consumers have been shown to be motivated by convenience, sensory appeal and price in making food choices, they differ strongly in the perceived importance of health, natural content, familiarity and weight control [6]. A focus group study on proteinenriched foods showed that, although most elderly people were positive about enriched bread and enriched cheese (84-93% positive), there was considerably more heterogeneity in the evaluation of other products, such as enriched soup and enriched meat (50-63% positive) [7]. This heterogeneity calls for market segmentation, a technique in which large, diverse groups of consumers are segmented into smaller groups that are more alike in certain characteristics. These smaller groups can then be targeted with products that meet their specific needs and wants. To investigate the types of protein-enriched foods preferred by elderly people, we performed a segmentation study on their rated willingness to try a collection of 16 protein-enriched foods (Figure 3) [2]. An earlier focus group study [7] had shown that the elderly had trouble pinpointing why products were or were not suitable for enrichment; for example, respondents said ‘in my view you don’t go eating soup to get extra protein’. Therefore, we made sure that our collection of 16 products differed systematically in their healthiness, traditionalism and meal type (i.e. meal or snack) based on a series of pilot tests. In this way, we were able to gain insight into the product characteristics that drove acceptance or rejection of proteinenriched foods. When looking at the elderly group as a whole, preferred foods for enrichment were healthy, traditional meal components (e.g. bread or milk). However, when we segmented the elderly into groups, only 3 out of 6 segments (54% of the elderly) were interested in using protein-enriched bread or milk. The other 3 segments (46% of the elderly) either preferred less traditional types of food (e.g. soy milk or meat replacers), less healthy types of food (e.g. sauce or fries) or snacks enriched with protein (e.g. cereal bars or crisps). Clearly, by taking into account heterogeneity among the elderly, the needs and wants of a considerably larger proportion of elderly consumers can be met.

Commercialisation of enriched foods

How can we make sure that the elderly actually buy eriched foods? Simply advertising specialist products as ‘foods for the elderly’ will not do, as the concept of old age bears a stigma. Although elderly people are seen as wise, kind and warm, they are also seen as slow, helpless and inept. Quite understandably, older consumers do not want to be considered old, and will likely reject products that are explicitly targeted at them. There are two potential approaches, which are not mutually exclusive. Firstly, socio-emotional selectivity theory suggests that elderly consumers may be more accepting of products, that are framed in a positive, emotionally meaningful way [8]. According to this theory, perceived limitations in time have an effect on the goals that consumers pursue, such that they prioritise goals that fulfil emotional needs over those that fulfil utilitarian needs. These perceived limitations in time are caused by many events, from moving to another city to nearing the end of a year (Figure 4). Illness and physical limitations can also instigate a limited time view, which makes the elderly more susceptible to perceiving limitations. In line with socioemotional selectivity theory, the elderly preferred and remembered film advertisements better when they contained emotional appeals than when they contained rational appeals [9]. The claimed benefits of enriched foods may be a useful point to implement such positive, emotional appeals. Claims that are more emotionally meaningful, such as ‘increases your wellbeing’, are likely to be accepted more readily by the elderly than claims that are more rational, such as ‘increases your muscle strength’. Secondly, theories of cognitive ageing suggest that the elderly may react more positively to types of information that are compatible with their cognitive processing. With increasing age, cognitive capacity tends to decline, making it more difficult for elderly people to process complex information [10]. For example, the elderly indicate that they are increasingly uncertain about what is good or bad for their health and struggle to keep up with the latest nutritional guidelines. One elderly participant in a focus group study on enriched foods commented: ‘before, there were no discussions, we just ate everything, it was much simpler [...] I think it is more  difficult nowadays’ [7]. Fortunately, circumstances can be created in which processing is facilitated, for example by supplementing information with visual symbols or by designing packages with  easy-to-process fonts, lay outs and colour contrasts. This strategy also extends to the way in which the functionality of an enriched food is displayed. For example, functional ingredients described using more common, understandable names (e.g. fibre) are more readily accepted than ingredients described using unfamiliar, scientific names (e.g. β-glucan).


Enriched foods can support elderly consumers in managing their nutrient intake, however, some precautions are useful in successfully approaching the elderly population with these foods. Elderly consumers are very diverse in what they want. Market segmentation can help to better understand these diverse wants and can give guidance for developing products that meet the needs and wants of a larger proportion of the elderly population. We should look beyond the label ‘elderly’ when developing products for this group of consumers.

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