Reformulating for Seniors

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

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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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 MSG has largely been replaced by flavors described by flavorists as "umami," which, roughly translated from the Japanese, corresponds to the flavor of MSG or meaty or brothy flavors.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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