Older people need tailor-made food

6 Nov 2015

Independently living senior consumers perceive, appreciate and consume food differently, and tailor-made products are needed to improve the quality and quantity of their food intake, says Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research.

Older people need tailor-made food

There is a huge variation in the way that independently living senior consumers perceive, appreciate and consume food. Tailor-made products and interventions are needed to improve the quality and quantity of the food intake in this group. This conclusion was drawn after an extensive literature study by Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research. The research also shows that relatively few studies have been carried out into the food perception of older people.

A healthy diet contributes to healthy ageing, the researchers note. However, on average as people grow older, their sense of smell diminishes, which affects flavour perception from foods. This can negatively affect their appreciation and consumption of food. On the other hand, many older people with a limited sense of smell still enjoy their food just as much as young and older people with an unimpaired sense of smell. In addition, they rarely indicate a preference for flavour-enhanced food products.

“Better insight into the factors that affect food perception in independently living seniors will help us to develop new food products that support older people to eat a healthy diet”, said Dr Esmée Doets, researcher in Consumer and Behaviour at Food & Biobased Research.

The researchers would like to see more consumer research into the effects of product improvements combining flavour, texture and appearance. In 2014, Food & Biobased Research conducted a study, which showed that a combination of sensory improvements allowed seniors to appreciate food products more. The literature study clearly shows that so far, research on product improvements for older people mainly focused on flavour enhancement strategies. Little attention was paid to the effect of the other sensory aspects.

Independently living senior consumers like their food as much as younger people, the researchers believe, although the way they perceive food products does change. Factors other than sensory aspects of the food most likely play a role, but little is known about this. The researchers believe that the memories and emotions that certain products evoke, and the social context in which food is eaten, may play a role. Aspects relating to packaging may also be important, such as the information given, the design and the ease of opening.

Besides the observation that only little data about the food perception of seniors exist, the literature study highlights that most of the studies on food liking among seniors are based on tasting small amounts of a food product.

“A person’s appreciation of a product often changes the more he/she consumes”, saidDoets. “If you ask someone how much he or she enjoyed a particular product, the answer after one bit or sip may be very different from the answer after an entire portion. And if you ask the same question a few hours later, you may receive yet another answer. There is very little research of this kind among older people, despite the fact that studies like this are probably a good indicator for whether they would choose a product again.” The consumer scientist advices others involved in the design of new research into food perception among independently-living seniors: define the specific target group first, and match the product to the perception of food in this group.

“There is no such thing as ‘the independently living senior’,” said Doets.

The literature study was based on relevant professional literature published in the past 10 years. The results are contained in a paper entitled: The silver sensory experience – A review of senior consumers’ food perception, liking and intake, published in the international journal Food Quality and Preference.