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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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.

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