With the global population of 'senior' consumers set to grow by almost 150 million in the next two years, there are massive opportunities for the food industry to target the older consumer.
In 1950, there were 205 million persons aged 60 or over in the world. By 2012, the number of older persons had increased to almost 810 million. It is projected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2 billion.
According to a recent report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and HelpAge International, the aging of the world population is progressive and rapid. It is an unprecedented phenomenon that is affecting nearly all countries of the world. As long as fertility continues to fall or remains low and old age mortality keeps on declining, the proportion of older people will continue to increase.
“The numbers are staggering. In the past ten years alone, the number of people aged 60 or over has risen by 178 million – equivalent to nearly the entire population of Pakistan, the sixth most populous country in the world. And in China alone, the estimated number of older people in 2012 is 180 million,” the report notes.
The number of people who turn 60 each year worldwide is nearly 58 million, equivalent to almost two persons every second. In 2012, people aged 60 or over represent almost 11.5 per cent of our total global population of 7 billion. By 2050, the proportion is projected to nearly double to 22 per cent. By 2050, for the first time there will be more older people than children under 15, the report titled ‘Aging in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and A Challenge’ states.
What is aging?
When talking about aging, it is essential to distinguish between population or demographic aging as “the process whereby older individuals become a proportionately larger share of the total population” growing older. This individual process of aging is multidimensional and involves physical, psychological and social changes.
The United Nations uses 60 years to refer to older people. This line, which divides younger and older cohorts of a population, is also used by demographers. However, in many developed countries, the age of 65 is used as a reference point for older persons as this is often the age at which persons become eligible for old-age social security benefits. So, there is no exact definition of “old” as this concept has different meanings in different societies.
Defining “old” is further challenged by the changing average lifespan of human beings. Around 1900, average life expectancy was between 45 and 50 years in the developed countries of that time. Now, life expectancy in developed countries reaches 80 years.
There are other definitions of “old” that go beyond chronological age. Old age as a social construct is often associated with a change of social roles and activities, for example, becoming a grandparent or a pensioner.
Older persons often define old age as a stage at which functional, mental and physical capacity is declining and people are more prone to disease or disabilities.
As the report notes, population aging is occurring because of declining fertility rates, lower infant mortality and increasing survival at older ages. Total fertility dropped by half from five children per woman in 1950-1955 to 2.5 children in 2010-2015, and it is expected to continue to decline.
Life expectancy at birth has risen substantially across the world; it is not just a developed world phenomenon. In 2010-2015, life expectancy is 78 years in developed countries and 68 years in developing regions. By 2045-2050, newborns can expect to live to 83 years in developed regions and 74 years in developing regions. While overall the world is aging, there are differences in the speed of population aging. It is happening fastest in the developing world.
The report points out that today, almost two in three people aged 60 or over live in developing countries, and by 2050, nearly four in five will live in the developing world.
Challenges of population aging
Population aging has significant social and economic implications at the individual, family, and societal levels. It also has important consequences and opportunities for a country’s development. Although the percentage of older persons is currently much higher in developed countries, the pace of population aging is much more rapid in developing countries and their transition from a young to an old age structure will occur over a shorter period. Not only do developing countries have less time to adjust to a growing population of older persons, they are at much lower levels of economic development and will experience greater challenges in meeting the needs of the increasing numbers of older people.
Financial security is one of the major concerns as people age. It is an issue for both older persons and a growing challenge for families and societies. Population aging is raising concerns about the ability of countries to provide adequate social protection and social security for the growing numbers of older persons. In many countries, the expectation is that the family will take care of its economically dependent older members. While some families support their older relatives, others are not in a financial position to do so in a way that does not affect their own economic situation. Older persons who do not have family to support them are especially vulnerable.
Informal support systems for older persons are increasingly coming under stress, as a consequence, among others, of lower fertility, out-migration of the young, and women working outside the home. There is an increasing consensus that countries must develop social protection systems that cover at least the basic needs of all older persons. Ensuring a secure income in old age is seen as a major challenge for governments facing fiscal problems and competing priorities.
Health is another major concern for older persons. The demographic transition to an aging population, accompanied by an epidemiological transition from the predominance of infectious diseases to non-communicable diseases, is associated with an increasing demand for health care and long-term care. Their management has become an increasing concern for both developing and developed countries.
Maintaining good health and access to health care is a core concern of older people everywhere. In many developed countries quality of care and rising healthcare costs are major issues related to population aging.
As is evident, population aging will present both challenges and opportunities.
An aging world population has placed increased demands on food and beverage manufacturers to take a closer look at their nutritional needs to help seniors manage chronic conditions affiliated with aging, such as heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As the average age of the global population rises, companies are looking for ways to more accurately satisfy the specific needs and wants of ‘older consumers’. One of the key opportunity areas is to develop products that help to ameliorate escalating health concerns. But health is not the only focus, so too is packaging adaptation and segmented communications that appeal but don’t patronize.
There will be more focus on health -- stirring manufacturers to pare down fat and sodium levels even more. Smaller package sizes (or portion sizes within larger packages) will also be in more demand, as appetites get smaller and there are fewer mouths to feed in the house. Finally, individual, single-serve meals (with their accompanying more reasonable portion size) that are convenient and appear healthful will be more in demand among older consumers. Remember also that with smaller appetites the aging consumer will need to pack the same amount of nutrients into a small portion size so the need for nutrient dense food will play a role in product choice.
Another thing to note about an aging population is a decrease in taste buds. At age thirty you have 245 taste buds and by age eighty you have only 64 taste buds. Foods that will appeal to this age group will need to be flavor enhanced. The use of more exotic spices or the addition of herbs may enhance flavor without adding high fat or sodium levels.
Even with healthy eating habits, physical activity and other healthy ways of living there are some things that are just factors that come with an aging population. Increases in the incidences of arthritis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and other medical conditions rise as you age. Since there is a movement towards being more responsible personally for health there will be increased interest in functional foods or herbal remedies that will address these problems.
Another factor to take into consideration is the increasing attention given to the number of the population that is considered obese. This may lead to further requirements by Health Canada or the Food and Drug Administration for nutritional information such as the need to label trans fatty acids in food that will be coming into effect in the United States.
The size of the senior market presents many opportunities for the agri-food sector in the development of food products with health benefits. To better understand and prioritize these opportunities, additional market intelligence is needed on the attitudes and consumption patterns, shopping habits, and needs for products and services for the various segments of the senior population. Industry could look to senior's organizations as partners and sources of information.
For seniors with medical conditions and decreased mobility, specialized foods are required at the retail level as well as for institutions or agencies. Reduced appetites, a reduction in taste and smell acuity and problems with chewing and swallowing would indicate a need for appetizing products that appeal to the eye and have good mouth feel. Opportunities exist for innovation to enhance flavor, taste and texture to improve sensory properties of food along with the nutritional profile. These enhancements can be accomplished through new technologies, new processing methods, food additives and novel ingredients.
Few food products have been specifically marketed to seniors. While industry has been addressing the nutritional needs of seniors through a variety of means that increase access to healthy food choices, there is a significant opportunity to expand on strategies such as altering nutrient levels in pre-packaged foods, developing nutrient-dense foods and ready-made meals, and applying innovative ingredients and technologies to enhance product format and packaging. Some opportunities are explored below.
Reducing the sodium content of food is an important way that industry can help seniors address high blood pressure (a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease).
Trans Fat Reduction
Reformulating products and using new fat sources and ingredients that contain little or no trans fat is helping industry to successfully lower the trans fat content of the diet. Continuing these changes will meet the needs of the senior population who are managing, or are interested in preventing, cardiovascular disease.
Increasing the fiber content of foods can help seniors improve their overall dietary fiber intake to manage blood cholesterol levels and laxation. In addition, fiber can be used to modify product texture to assist with swallowing. The industry can increase the fiber content of many categories of foods by using recognized sources of fiber and new novel fibers.
Foods that provide higher levels of protein, vitamins, mineral nutrients and sometimes calories in smaller volumes can help seniors meet increased nutrient requirements. The challenge for industry is to develop appetizing, nutrient-dense foods through value-added ingredients, novel ingredients, new technologies, reformulation, fortification and supplementation to meet the unique needs of the various segments of the senior population.
Most seniors live independently, and in general prefer homemade meals. For older consumers, ready meals are more likely to be perceived as lacking and a compromise in comparison with more traditional meal preparation. However, pre-packaged meals and meal services represent conveniences that could help many meet their nutritional needs.
Pre-packaged meals provide convenience by offering a complete meal that requires easy one-step cooking in the oven or microwave. The food industry may be able to expand this market to help meet seniors' nutritional needs through development of products that appeal in quality, taste and freshness and that meet specific nutritional requirements.
Meal services represent another convenience that could be important to seniors. To reach a broad customer base, marketing would need to counter the perception that this type of service is for the "old and sick". Ingredients that are fresh, portion controlled and partially prepared represent an opportunity that may appeal to the healthy, active senior.
The opportunity also exists to market meal replacements and foods with modified textures not only to institutions but also for distribution at retail and home delivery markets. These types of products can be promoted to professional and family caregivers.
Food Packaging and Labeling
Developing appropriate product format and packaging addresses the special needs of the mature consumer by making food accessible and therefore potentially improving seniors' nutrient intake and ultimately their health status.
Industry can expand current efforts in adapting product packaging to accommodate reduced strength and dexterity. Some trends in packaging that may appeal to the senior population include easy open and reclose, single and double portions, microwave reheating including steam-assisted, stand-up flexible pouches and cook-in barrier bags, flip-top caps in which the product and cap stay together (as opposed to twist tops), and square packages (instead of round) that do not roll.
Use of increased font size and colors with good contrast are especially important for label information. Including instructions on how to open packaging, adjusting package size to contents and including a toll-free number for consumer information are some of the many ways for industry to continue improving upon food and beverage packaging.
Communicating the Health Benefits of Foods
Marketing the health benefits of foods to seniors in clear and meaningful ways will improve consumer knowledge and acceptance of new foods with health benefits. Product labels are the most used source of nutrition information but are in the middle in terms of credibility. Communicating health benefits that are based on scientific substantiation is vital to increasing consumers' trust in the credibility of health claims, thus widening the market to those who have not previously considered purchasing foods for added health benefits. As an additional consideration, simple messages may be better for seniors with declining eyesight.
Nutrient content claims and quantitative declaration of bioactive substances can be used to highlight specific product features. Factual statements identifying the quantity of nutrient in a product are straightforward to use as long as conditions for their use are met.
Nutrient function claims can also be used to highlight product features sought by seniors. CFIA maintains a list of accepted claims that describe the well-established roles of energy or known nutrients that are essential for the maintenance of good health or for normal growth and development.
Manufacturers can make use of health claims approved by regulators for use on food labels of products that meet the conditions of use.
The aging population has been identified as one of the most important challenges facing the world as the twenty-first century progresses. This carries numerous implications for the global food industry, as this increasingly affluent demographic group is more inclined to seek out products that promote health and longevity, and/or address emerging health concerns.
These trends carry numerous implications for the global food industry as this increasingly affluent demographic group becomes more inclined to seek out products that promote health and longevity, as well as helping them to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle past middle age. This trend has already been observed in sectors such as milk, yoghurt drinks, bottled water and ready meals, and seems set to shape other activities to an ever-increasing extent over the coming years.