Reformulating for Seniors

What food formulators can do to offset time’s toll on seniors’ taste and smell.

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

It's an old joke that as we age, things start to go. Taste and smell are two of those things that lose some of their sharpness as we get older. The loss of taste acuity causes an inability to recognize the flavors of even familiar, favorite foods. That presents a challenge to food companies trying to formulate foods that are appealing and nutritious for an aging population.

"A certain number of foods are not going to taste good enough to satisfy the appetites of the elderly, so they might resort to unhealthy eating habits," warns David Koepnick, chairman of the International Food Information Council Foundation ( "They could lose the motivation to eat certain foods such as vegetables or meats, and increase the consumption of foods that are low in nutritional values such as candies or pastries." This shift results in health problems that include loss of bone mass, a weakened immune system, weak muscles and high blood pressure.

Food processors who are developing foods for the elderly are dealing with three segments within this large age demographic:
  • The age 55-plus healthy, active adults who need fewer calories but more nutrients, and slightly higher flavor levels.

  • The over-80 seniors who are still healthy but require significantly more nutrients but less saturated fat and calorie content than the 55-year age group.

  • People of any age who are dealing with significantly reduced ability to taste and enjoy foods and who may have trouble getting enough nutrients and calories. This third group needs flavors that satisfy their reduced taste acuity. That means a variety of flavors, including the savory umami flavors, favorite flavors and aromas including herbs and spices, chocolate flavors, fruit flavors high in aromatic notes and comfort foods like turkey and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
"Right now in America there are 35 million people over the age of 65, and that figure is increasing at a rate of 12 percent," reads ConAgra Foods' web site for its senior-targeted Golden Cuisine. "By 2030 the number of Americans over the age of 65 will double today's number and reach 70 million."

Information on the food preferences of the elderly is not plentiful, especially since recent concerns have centered on obesity, rather than on not enough food consumption among the elderly. Much of the basic work on perception of flavor, aroma, eye appeal and taste was done during the decade of the 1990s, when the structure of taste receptors was defined.

Perception of basic flavors, such as sweetness, decreases as persons age, according to studies by W.R. Cunningham and J.W. Brookbank, writing in Gerontology: The Psychology, Biology, and Sociology of Aging. This publication, which was released in 1988, confirmed work done by Susan Schiffman of the Duke University Medical Center, which noted the sucrose threshold for people between 52 and 85 years of age is three times higher than among teenagers.

Sweet and sour go early

Work reported during that time frame indicated sweet and sour perception decreased more sharply than perception of saltiness and acidity. Another factor is certain medications affect the characteristics of saliva, making food taste like medicine. "Twenty percent of the U.S. population will be older than 65 by the year 2030 and may not realize their ability to enjoy certain foods will come to an end," says Schiffman. "They will need to cultivate the ability to accept foods for what they are, instead of only how they taste to them."

So flavor, differentiated from taste, depends on other senses in order to make food more pleasant. According to Fergus Clydesdale, a researcher at University of Massachusetts who studied the effect of color and flavor on sensory perception, the effect of sucrose concentration was affected by color, which also affected food preference, pleasantness and acceptability. Red was especially effective in improving flavor preference.

The effects of aroma also are important, as Schiffman reported in the late 1990s when she studied the effects of adding aromas to foods. The aroma-flavors used in a test with retirement home residents were primarily aromas of roast beef, ham, bacon, prime beef, maple and cheese. The elderly residents who were given enhanced foods ate more of the foods with the enhancements (not all foods in a meal were enhanced), and less of the unenhanced foods. The consumption of the enhanced foods was higher, and measurements of T and B cells, a measure of immune system health, and hand grip strength improved with the higher consumption of the enhanced foods.

Problems with flavor enjoyment occur for a number of reasons. Schiffman reports flavor sensory dysfunction may begin at about age 60 and may become more severe as persons reach 70 years of age or older. Causes range from simple loss of flavor and aroma acuity to disease states such as cancer, medications, radiation and surgical interventions. There are some specific names for the dysfunctions, including ageusia (absence of taste), hypogeusia (diminished sensitivity of taste), dysgeusia (distortion of normal taste), hyposmia (distortion of normal smell) and others.

Patients with hypogeusia require higher concentrations of flavorants in order to detect and recognize the flavor or the food. Patients with dysgeusia often complain about taste distortions, such as bitter or metallic flavors in familiar foods. (Certain cancer treatments often trigger this sensation. It usually disappears after a course of chemotherapy is completed, but may linger for a long time.)


Manufacturing products for seniors takes some extra care. Processing methods must preserve texture and flavor, as well as nutrient content — but they also must be effective in preventing bacterial contamination. It's well known the elderly are extremely susceptible to food borne diseases, such as listeria and salmonella. Seniors' immune systems often are weak. Any changes in manufacturing methods must be carefully checked to ensure commercial sterility.

While meat-like aromas improved eating habits of elderly people in Schiffman's studies, other strongly aromatic flavors may be helpful as well. McCormick & Co.'s ( annual list of 10 top flavors includes some very aromatic spices and herbs: allspice, annatto (primarily used as a red-orange coloring material) cardamom, cinnamon, curry powder, ginger, mint, pickling spice and sage. All would work well on seniors.

Studies completed in 1994 by T. Briley, writing in Nutrition Reviews, noted that foods consumed most frequently by elderly Americans included white bread, ground coffee, milk, sugar, potatoes, tea, orange juice, eggs, butter and bacon.

Studies by the Duke researchers found flavors such as chicken broth stimulated saliva flow and appetite. During the era when this basic research into flavors and elderly subjects was being completed, monosodium glutamate was a popular flavor enhancer. MSG has largely been replaced by flavors described by flavorists as "umami," which, roughly translated from the Japanese, corresponds to the flavor of MSG or meaty or brothy flavors. Several studies have indicated the elderly, as well as those undergoing chemotherapy, tend to accept foods with a "umami" component, whether this is accomplished using cooked meats or broth or synthetic flavors.

Improving the diets of elderly persons includes working with increased nutrient needs of elderly persons. Carolyn Podgurski, a dairy ingredient specialist working with Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill., and doing research at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, noted the need for calcium and vitamin D increases sharply with age. Vitamin D requirements are about 200 International Units at age 20, increasing to 400 at age 50 and 500 at age 70, as the ability to manufacture vitamin D from sunlight decreases with age. Calcium requirements also increase.

"Milk is a product that many elderly persons find pleasant, and additional flavor, such as chocolate, may enhance the flavor preference as well," says Podgurski. "Even persons who have some symptoms associated with lactose intolerance, as lactase enzymes are often reduced in elderly persons, can usually tolerate a glass of low-fat milk."

Yogurt offers additional pluses, such as natural organisms that can replenish the gastrointestinal flora, which often is damaged by antibiotics. These products can be sweetened with high-intensity sweeteners to keep the calorie content within range, while supplying protein and extra calcium.

There is special concern over fats. Work done by Schiffman and others indicates older people may not perceive the flavor or mouthfeel of fats, and may then consume higher amounts of them without recognizing them as such.

Delivering what they want

A few insights into what elderly people like and dislike is available from services like Meals on Wheels ( The volunteer service delivers meals to seniors in both their homes and in group homes. A group in northwest Indiana notes favorite hot meals are turkey with gravy and whipped potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, and fruit plates. When it's available, the customers like Ensure, (the Ross Products/Abbott Laboratories meal in a bottle) especially strawberry, noted one of the drivers who delivers to individual persons, and may be the only person that elderly subscribers see during a day.

Meals on Wheels' clientele is generally housebound and not the healthy, active part of the senior population. However, those are the two major divisions for any food marketer targeting the senior population.

Meals on Wheels also is one of the major outlets for a relatively new line of products from ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb. Golden Cuisine ( is a "frozen food line [that] includes 35 different meal selections, using products from our top brands including Butterball turkey, Healthy Choice entrees and Armour specialty meats," according to Tom Lavan, senior vice president and general manager of special markets. "The entrees are offered on our website, 15 at a time, for delivery every two weeks by overnight delivery or bulk shipment to Meals on Wheels or other groups."

Echoing the experience of the Meals on Wheels driver, Lavan notes the most popular choices are home-style meals, like turkey and dressing, chicken with marinara sauce and spaghetti and meatballs. "The meals are formulated by leading dietary and geriatric specialists. They meet government standards for mature adult nutrition, while providing caloric energy, as well as proper vitamins and minerals for sound nutritional health," says Lavan.

All Golden Cuisine meals provide 3 oz. of protein, two servings of vegetables that equal one cup, one serving of a starch, less than 30 percent of calories from fat, less than 700 mg of sodium, more than a third of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein and a significant contribution to one-third of the RDA of vitamins and minerals. They are designed for adults 55 and older and offer a nutritionally balanced and convenient mealtime solution for those who face obstacles to getting the nutritious meals they want and need.

A recent survey commissioned by Golden Cuisine showed a significant portion of the 55-plus population felt that providing nutritious meals for themselves was a challenge, whether they were living independently or in another setting. For this reason, Golden Cuisine works as a supply partner with a number of senior care health systems and care networks.

These meal solutions are seasoned subtly, but Lavan notes seasoning can be added if the diner prefers it. Textures are like those in other meals, but there are some softer meals for those who have problems chewing.


Marketing to seniors must be done carefully in order not to insult those new to this segment. As anyone can attest who, shortly after his 50th birthday, gets his first letter from AARP, many people don't like to be identified as seniors or elderly. Wherever you draw the line – at 50, 55, 65 – may be risky.

However, products like Abbott Laboratories' Ensure nutritional drinks have successfully increased their market segment by including persons of an ever-widening age group in their advertising. "We emphasize ease of consumption and convenience" noted one of the company's marketers. "And we make sure the flavors are top-notch. We test acceptability on consumers from 18 to 85."
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