Feeding the needs of an ageing population

Danisco Australia Pty Ltd
By Stephanie Jacklin, Euromonitor
Sunday, 06 March, 2005

The ageing population is on the increase across most of the world. The proportion of the global population over 60 increased from 8.6% in 1980, according to the United Nations, to 10.0% in 2000, and is forecast to rise to around 14% by 2020. This trend is most pronounced in developed nations where living standards and availability of medical care are high, with Japan showing the fastest ageing population.

The over 60s is a growing demographic, and a substantial proportion has a large disposable income. This group also has specific demand patterns with regards to food purchases. They may seek out foods which address medical issues linked to old age, and also foods which cater for the decline in taste sensitivity and the need for simple, convenient foods, which are physically easy to handle and prepare.

Although products targeted at the elderly will be a niche area, there is considerable potential for well-marketed products which target the ageing population. Products that address bone health, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes and other complaints common to the elderly should receive a boost due to a gradual swelling of the potential consumer base. Indeed, the ageing of the population should push up sales of functional food in general as incidence of many illnesses increases with age.

Euromonitor's report titled The World Market for Functional Food and Beverages comments on the huge potential of the ageing population as a consumer demographic, "Not only will this group be large, it will, in many countries, also be wealthier, more active and more experimental than previous generations, and thus will represent an excellent target for functional foods."

Population 60+ 1980 2000 2020
World 8.6 10 13.6
Australia 13.7 16.4 23.5
Japan 12.9 23.3 34
Italy 17 24.1 30.8
Germany 19.3 23.2 29.3
Spain 14.9 21.2 27.4
France 17.2 20.5 26.6
UK 20.1 20.7 24.5
US 15.6 16.1 22
China 7.4 10.1 16.8
Brazil 6.2 7.8 13.3
Table 1: Percentage of population over 60. Source: United Nations World Population Prospects Database

Effectively tapping into this is a strong prospect, especially for a nutritionally focused food manufacturer. Consumers of this age group are among the most affluent, but to date food manufacturers have largely failed to meet the potential demand this demographic heralds.

The potential for this market is clear. While youth-focused functional foods, such as sports and energy products, currently dominate the functional foods market, their share of the market is expected to decline in favour of cholesterol lowering products and those which aid intestinal health.

These latter products are likely to come to the fore in line with the growing elderly demographic, which forms a major consumer base for these products. Julian Stowell of Danisco highlights a number of key areas where ingredients can be added to foods to allow them to address the medical issues which are becoming increasingly prevalent as society ages. "Foods which tackle diabetes, compromised immune systems, digestive issues, malnourishment, osteoporosis, hypertension and high cholesterol, all of which afflict the elderly, offer considerable growth potential," he notes.

Diabetes and low GI foods

Diabetes and compromised glucose metabolism is an area of major concern. The prevalence of type II diabetes is rising at an alarming rate, and this is in part catalysed by ageing populations, as well as diet, sedentary lifestyles and lack of exercise. According to the International Diabetes Federation, around 194 million adults have diabetes today compared to 135 million in 1995, and around 85% of these cases is type II diabetes.

Recent research indicates that reducing the glycaemic index of the diet can have a very positive effect on diabetes and can even take people out of the diabetic category. A key study in this area is the Nurses Health Study, an epidemiological study undertaken in the US where 80,000 nurses and health professionals were studied over a period of 30 years. The study showed that the subjects with the highest glycaemic impact and the lowest cereal fibre intake had 2.5 times more risk of getting type II diabetes than those with the lowest glycaemic impact and the highest cereal fibre intake.

Promoting foods which replace high GI sugars with low GI ingredients would be an effective way to address this issue. To date, there are few products available that make claims about glycaemic effect, and none of these are specifically targeted at the elderly.

Compromised immune systems

Compromised immune systems are common among the elderly, making them vulnerable to infection. Weak immune systems can be built up by consuming foods that have been fortified with prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics.

Of particular note in this area is the EU DG Research (Pro EU Health) program. This includes the Crownalife project, which is focused on research into special functional foods for the elderly. Crownalife is looking closely at the colon and its microflora, the influence of ageing and diet on the gut, and the role of probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics in preserving a healthy colon in the elderly. This will result in dietary recommendations for the elderly, which may help increase awareness of the importance of gut health products for the ageing population.

Currently, although prebiotic and probiotic food products, such as Yakult and Actimel, are well established in a number of markets, notably Japan and Europe, they are rarely marketed as a useful supplement for the elderly, and are instead promoted on a broader basis.

Colonic diverticulitis

Colonic diverticulosis and the later stage of this, colonic diverticulitis, is another ailment often affecting the elderly. In the US, 33-50% of the 50-plus population contracts diverticular disease and this increases to over 50% in the over 80s. It is common in developed nations due to the deficiency of dietary fibre in the Western diet.

Increasing fibre intake among the elderly is therefore important. Food manufacturers aiming foods at an ageing population could consider upping the fibre content of processed foods.

Malnourishment, osteoporosis, hypertension and high cholesterol

Other complaints typically found among the elderly include malnourishment, osteoporosis, hypertension and high cholesterol, all of which can be addressed by foods. Low intake of micronutrients, often due to loss of appetite, is a common problem, and is targeted by products such as Boost and Ensure (Ross) in the US market and offer growth potential.

The incidence of osteoporosis is particularly pronounced in elderly women, and there are numerous foodstuffs that are marketed as helping to stave off this disease. This includes products that are fortified with calcium and those which include prebiotics, which improve mineral absorption by lowering the pH in the colon.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol are also complaints that can, and are, addressed by food products. Valio's milk-based drink Evolus is the first food in Europe that aims to reduce blood pressure. It is based on peptides - milk is fermented using natural lactic acid bacteria, and this degrades the milk protein into bioactive peptides that lower blood pressure. This is an interesting area and one that is relatively underdeveloped to date for functional foods, but shows strong promise of further growth.

Products addressing high levels of cholesterol, in contrast, are much more developed. Plant sterol products are widely available in the forms of spreads and other foods. This represents one of the key success areas for functional foods aimed (in part) at the elderly and provides a useful model for the effective marketing and distribution of such products.

Good potential, but remains underdeveloped

Although there appears to be latent demand for foods targeted at tackling these issues, to date, few manufacturers have actively sought to tap into this. Functional foods in general are a fast-growing area, but those which may have medical relevance to the elderly (such as plant sterol spreads and probiotic drinks) are generally marketed more widely than this in order to avoid an overly niche positioning. Indeed, functional food manufacturers are cautious about marketing a niche product, or one that is positioned in an overtly clinical manner.

The industry is littered with the skeletons of product failures even from well-established companies. Christiana Benkouider, research analyst for Euromonitor, comments, "Typically, the more successful products have a mainstream positioning: they are marketed through supermarkets, are produced by a well-known company and are positioned as generally contributing to wellness, rather than targeting a specific illness. The less successful products have taken a more niche positioning, and appear closer to medicines than to food." This factor has, to date, restricted the development of foods aimed specifically at addressing the medical problems of the elderly.

Taste is vital

Foods marketed to the elderly on a medical basis must, like all functional foods, also appeal on other criteria. Christiana Benkouider notes, "Successful products do not promote their health benefits in a vacuum - they also pay close attention to other selling points, such as taste, convenience and price. For a functional food to perform well, it should be competitive even without the health benefit factor."

With regard to foods for the elderly, this is even more pertinent. With age comes some loss in taste sensitivity and ability to chew. For this reason, foods which are targeted at the elderly should not only factor in nutritional issues, but also compensate for this loss of taste and inability to handle tough textures.

Such foods, while somewhere in the future for most of the world, are already emerging in Japan. Japan is one of the most established markets for functional food, and also has the world's fastest ageing population. The issue of self-medication and the elderly in Japan is several steps ahead of the rest of the world. And there have been developments in foods aimed specifically at the elderly. QP Corp is at the forefront of this, having launched a range of products fortified with calcium, iron and vitamins, and ready meals in various consistencies from liquid to semi-solid for those unable chew foods properly.

Will the world follow Japan?

Will the rest of the developed world follow suit?

The potential for food aimed at the elderly is huge, but it isn't risk free. Manufacturers planning on developing products in this area must note not only the medical needs of the elderly, but also the way these are foods are presented.

Careful marketing will be key to each product's success, to allow manufacturers to appeal to consumers on a food level as well as a medical level.

Taste and texture will be crucial. Manufacturers have so far been hesitant in exploring this market for fear of creating a product that is too niche in its appeal, but as the ageing population grows, more are likely to try to tap into this potentially lucrative area.

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