Baby boomers and other older shoppers who grew up with cereal, soups and sodas are an increasingly lucrative audience for food and beverage companies even if the demographic is starving for attention.
Millennials demanding healthier and more natural products are drawing much of the focus from food manufacturers, but other consumers still have far more valuable disposable income and purchasing power.
At the grocery store — all those boxes, canned goods and meal ingredients, which still compose the majority of supermarket sales — are filled with brands that older shoppers remember fondly from their childhood. As a result, food makers must take time to adapt products, packaging and marketing approaches to meet the needs of mature adults, or risk ceding billions of dollar in revenue to their competitors.
“The older consumer segment is still the key sales driver of those types of items,” Lori Bitter, founder of consultancy group The Business of Aging, said in an email with Food Dive.
The boomer generation — whose oldest members began turning 65 in 2011 — is responsible for pushing up the median age of the U.S. consumer, from 35.3 years in 2000 to 37.9 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Each day, 8,000 boomers turn 65 years old, and unlike previous generations, they’re postponing retirement, staying active, minding their health and wellness, and living longer.
Unfortunately, older adults are often ignored by food companies, who have turned much of their attention to figuring out what younger generations want. This could prove to be a costly mistake.
"Older adults’ favorite foods don’t change when the calendar pushes them past 50. Several lifestyle-related things do happen though, including the onset of chronic conditions, that not only affects food and activity choices, but often requires nutritional guidance."
Founder of consulantcy group The Business of Aging
“Older adults have long been forgotten in terms of their purchasing power and the attention they’re given whether it’s their health or nutritional needs, or just their interests and values,” Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, a vice president of research and partnerships for the International Food Information Council, told Food Dive.
The health, science and nutrition group found a lot of older consumers change their food habits and preferences because of changing family dynamic structure.
“Oftentimes they’re cooking for one, so they need smaller portions. Their strength may be limited, so the ease of opening cans and jars becomes more important, as does product packaging and packaging resealability. So it might not necessarily be the food itself — more fruits and veggies, whole grains, or dairy and fluid intake — but also the way food is bought and consumed that starts to matter in different ways for older adults compared to younger generations,” said Lewin-Zwerdling.
The older generation remains an economically powerful group, representing a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth and spending power. According to Nielsen, boomers account for 49% of all spending on consumer packaged goods — or about $230 billion annually — and they dominate across almost every CPG category.
Boomers have fundamentally reinvented each life stage they’ve entered, so there’s no reason to believe aging and retirement will be any different. They remain an active generation and seek food products that will help them keep moving.
What older adults want — and need
Millennials may snag much of a manufacturer's attention these days, but older consumers have their own perceptions and attitudes toward food that companies should keep in mind.
“Older adults’ favorite foods don’t change when the calendar pushes them past 50,” wrote Bitter. “Several lifestyle-related things do happen though, including the onset of chronic conditions — like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and arthritis — that not only affects food and activity choices, but often requires nutritional guidance.”
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2017 Food and Health Survey, older Americans (age 50+) are more apt to cut back on foods high in saturated fats compared to those between 18 and 49 years of age (75% vs. 57%), reduce foods high in salt (71% vs. 59%), eat more whole grains (70% vs. 62%) and replace full-fat dairy with low- or no-fat alternatives (60% vs. 50%.) They’re also more inclined to seek foods with different health benefits, such as weight management and cardiovascular and digestive health.
And just because older consumers want more foods for functional purposes doesn't mean they will forego taste.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that flavor profiles need to change," Bitter said. "Your favorite foods don’t change because you get older. Health conditions may change things like salt intake or certain types of foods, but the food must remain flavorful."
Registered dietitian Abby Sauer at nutrition products company Abbott agrees. In an email to Food Dive, she explained that taste remains one of the most important parts of any nutrition product because it won’t provide nourishment if it doesn't taste good.
“In order to reap the health benefits, we need to make sure consumers enjoy it," wrote Sauer. "With age or illness, the palette changes, and Abbott takes this into consideration as we develop flavors, textures and aromas in every product.”
General Mills recently filed a patent for a new method of fortifying cereals, which allows it to use higher amounts of calcium and dietary fiber than was previously possible without affecting how the cereal tastes or feels in the mouth. This could give the company a competitive advantage as more consumers, especially aging ones, look for easy and tasty ways to include more fiber and other nutrients in their diets.
While the senior crowd may not be buying the latest on-trend foods or the flashiest flavors, it doesn't mean they should be ignored.
“Older adults are by definition considered ‘old school’ when it comes to food,” David Sprinkle, research director with Packaged Facts, wrote in an email to Food Dive.
How manufacturers can adapt food products
As the idea of “aging well” takes on widespread appeal, experts predict a vibrant market for functional and fortified foods ahead.
“Health, energy and wellness are major goals for boomers and other older adults," Patrick Luchsinger, marketing manager of nutrition for Ingredion, wrote in an email to Food Dive. "They are focused on fending off aging and increasingly understand the role of a healthy diet in extending their active years. This is where functional ingredients can be targeted and messaged specifically."
Older consumers increasingly will look for foods that help prevent or mitigate many conditions that figure prominently as people age, such as heart health, risks of diabetes, cancer and obesity, among others. Plant proteins, omega 3 fats, fiber, vitamin D and magnesium are the key nutrients that may make food products more attractive to baby boomers.
"Older consumers don’t want another pill to take. Instead they want nutrients and functionality of certain ingredients built into tasty and convenient foods that fit their needs and lifestyle."
Marketing manager - nutrition, Ingredion Inc.
“I think Campbell’s has done a great job of shifting into healthy options and also being an ingredient brand in other meal preparations,” noted Bitter.
The company’s eponymous soup, for example, comes in heart-healthy varieties certified by the American Heart Association. It is loaded with vegetables, whole grains and legumes, which helps boost their fiber content. In addition, Campbell’s V8 brand beverages are not only vegetable-rich, but come in low sodium, high fiber, essential antioxidants and omega 3 varieties.
“We’ve seen a growing interest in heart-healthy foods and that’s been underscored by the growth of our Healthy Request line,” Karen DeJesus, business director for Campbell Soup, said in a 2011 statement.
Bitter also helped Sunsweet Growers develop product extensions beyond prune juice, known for its 70+ appeal. The food manufacturer created PlumSmart plum juice and dried plums to broaden consumer appeal down the age spectrum. Still, PlumSmart products are packed with vitamin K, potassium and other minerals known to improve intestinal and bone health.
Then there’s the upshot in plant proteins and dairy alternatives, good not only for vegans and the lactose intolerant, but also consumers who have increasing difficulties digesting lactose as they age. While older generations may be reluctant to try Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger plant-based patties, they are thirsty for soy and nut milks. This is a key reason behind Danone’s purchase of Silk almond milk maker WhiteWave last year.
“Older consumers don’t want another pill to take. Instead, they want nutrients and functionality of certain ingredients built into tasty and convenient foods that fit their needs and lifestyle,” wrote Luchsinger.
Emerging trends in functional foods for the aging
Some of the notable trends, and challenges, in functional foods for the aging include:
Food bacterial for gut health.
Digestive health and maintaining good bacteria in the gut is an important factor for the 50-plus generation because it helps food move through the digestive tract and ease constipation.
Pulse proteins add fiber and enhance muscle mass.
Protein pulses — made from combinations of beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas — are growing in popularity because they provide plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Pulse proteins can help address obesity, manage or even prevent chronic diseases, and provide added protein to help address muscle loss.
Nutrient-dense products for quick recovery.
Last year, Abbott introduced protein- and nutrient-packed Ensure Enlive to help adults recover from illness, injury or surgery. But according to Sauer, nutrient-dense products present challenges in terms of aroma and taste because the many added minerals often have a metallic taste.
Value-added beverages are becoming increasingly popular and sought after by today's health-conscious consumers and aging Americans who demand convenient and easy ways to improve their daily nutrition intake. Joe Clayton, CEO of the International Food Information Council, told Food Dive, “There is a very specific product subset of companies that make supplemental nutrition items — drinkable solutions like Abbott’s Ensure and Glucerna — that are marketed very directly to seniors with certain gaps in their personal nutrition profiles.” Glucerna is specifically designed for someone with diabetes to help them manage their condition, according to Abbott’s Sauer.
Emerging startup Kate Farms produces a line of meal replacement shakes free of common allergens and artificial sweeteners or flavors, but loaded with prebiotic fiber, making them ideal for aging adults. "Each shake we make is a well-balanced meal of carefully balanced carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” said Zachari Breeding, a registered dietitian with Kate Farms. "We include a blend of 29 superfood extracts that are known to reduce inflammation and aid absorption."
Embracing the medical foods market
Some manufacturers such as Nestle and Hormel are taking the concept of functional foods and adding healthy ingredients to existing products as they explore the medical foods market.
Medical foods, including prescription-based powders and drinks, provide nutritional value needed to treat chronic diseases. They will become increasingly important as the global population continues to age. The food or beverage merely becomes the delivery mechanism for medical treatment.
Nestle has set a $500 million budget through 2021 to perform research into medical foods, which includes a lab with machines that can analyze human DNA to create customized treatment regimens for various diseases. Nestle's health business has been a bright spot for the firm, with sales growth outpacing the rest of the company.
“The field of nutritional therapy is vibrant with scientific and clinical advances, and this new facility will be dedicated to Nestle Health Science’s quest to advance the therapeutic role of nutrition, a central part of [the company’s] wider commitment to nutrition, health and wellness,” Stefan Catsicas, Nestle’s chief technology officer and head of research and development, stated in a press release.
Hormel, in collaboration with the Cancer Nutrition Consortium, developed a new medical foods line, Hormel Vital Cuisine, which includes ready-to-eat meals, nutrition shakes and whey protein powders specially designed to serve the needs of cancer patients. The products provide nutrients and protein to help patients combat the loss of energy and muscle mass during treatments.
“During product development, we brought together researchers in both the health and culinary fields to ensure a thorough understanding of a patient’s needs during various phases of treatment,” Chet Rao, Hormel’s strategy and business manager for the specialty foods group, said in a statement. “This product line was thoughtfully crafted, since many product attributes such as flavor, texture, and ingredients are known to affect patients differently during their cancer journey, during which eating and drinking can be challenging.”
It's more than just the food
The food not only needs to taste good and have nutritional benefits, but the labels on the item itself must be easy to read and the package one that can be opened with minimal effort, experts said. The amount of food is key, too. Many seniors may not want a lot to eat, or they are living on a fixed budget and want to control their portions. Simple features like a resealable package are one thing that is popular with these consumers.
“When I can’t easily open food packaging, I wonder how brands can even hope to sell to a senior," said Bitter with The Business of Aging. "Easy open packaging is important. And it’s appreciated by people of every generation.”
Abbott constantly evaluates its packaging to provide the best possible user experience — which means products that are both easy to open and consume. The company's Ensure bottle, for example, was recently redesigned to enhance grippability, and make grabbing and pulling the tamper band easier. Directional arrows also were added to the top to help with unscrewing, according to Sauer.
Some food packaging that is a hit for baby boomers is popular with other audiences, too. Take large tuna cans versus single-serve resealable pouches. Bitter said the group found smaller portions that appeal to older adults also work for young singles and moms who are packing lunches.
Balancing act: Maintaining a middle ground
Usually it’s not good business for manufacturers to create products or marketing materials that focus specifically on age or a particular demographic. In other words, it’s generally smart to avoid wording that specifically reads "for seniors" or “especially for older adults” on a package.
Food manufacturers often toe the middle ground instead, creating products that appeal to a broad swath of consumers. Older demographics are hinted at subtly with packaging and messaging that appear ageless, calling out good-for-you attributes or general nutrition issues, for instance.
"Maintaining a middle ground and creating products appealing to all is likely to be sales-growth suicide."
Research director, Packaged Facts
“There’s a lot of overlap in the types of product, but the ‘why it matters’ can depend on the age group," said Lewin-Zwerdling. "Younger generations might be interested in single-serve portions for weight control or weight management. Older adults may be interested in them for smaller portions or their cooking-for-one life stage.”
Sprinkle had a slightly different viewpoint: “Maintaining a middle ground and creating products appealing to all is likely to be sales-growth suicide.” In other words, it’s time to toss the one-size-fits-all mentality by the wayside.
It's a balancing act that's tricky for food manufacturers to navigate. Companies often can struggle making products that appeal to many shoppers while customizing marketing strategies and messages in a way that resonates with issues most important to different age segments. A difficult ask, perhaps — but what in the food industry these days is easy?