Designing new meals for an ageing population

Ana I.A. Costa & Wim M.F. Jongen. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr (2010) 50: 489


Author: Jesús Tomás Olivares Roldán (Master´s student of Biotechnology and Bioengineering, 2015-2016)


There is a current necessity for the food industry to provide information regarding new products in the market in order to satisfy the nutritional requirements and sensorial perception of the elder adults.  However, the development of a new product for this population poses a great risk. For example, if the product states that it is for the elderly, they will rejected by this population as well as younger individuals, and therefore the product will sell less. This study indicates how to design new products in order to sell them to the elder adults in an adequate manner.

In order to design a product, it is important to define how it can be presented. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the current needs of the consumers. In this manner, the development of a new product should pass through 5 steps:


  • Identify the opportunity: A market study is performed, in order to identify the needs and desires of the non-satisfied consumers. This area is identified as new market. From this study, new ideas should be developed to satisfy this sector.


  • Product design: This step should focus on the consumer´s needs, in order to adequately sell the product. In this manner, the new product should be compared to existing ones in order to identify the new elements that it provides. Also, population it is directed to should be identified. Once the product is designed, a selling estimate is performed, as well as define the marketing strategy.


  • Evaluation: It is important to perform an evaluation of the product to know if it meets the necessary requirements. At the same time, the marketing strategy must be studied to see if it is adequate.


  • Introduction to the market: In this step, the product launching should be well prepared, in order to maximize sells. Once the product is in the market, the consumer´s reactions, as well as that of the competitors, should be assessed.


  • Life cycle management: Once the product is on sale, it is necessary to work on the aspects that the consumers believe that require improvement, in order to avoid the product being obsolete. It is also important to analyse the competitor´s movements. Innovation is key for a product to not disappear from the stores.

The elderly are one of the most important consumer populations, and therefore an opportunity for new products. The life expectancy has increased significantly in recent years, and therefore is a growing population. A possible business model is the selling of prepared meals as substitutes of home cooking. The elderly require the food to be easy to prepare as in many cases they are not fit to prepare them by themselves. Although some eat out, the majority prefer to eat traditional meals in their households.

Therefore, it is important to study the current market in order to know if the new product has an added value with respect to the existing one. In this manner, it is possible to identify the weak points or areas that need improvement which the new product may satisfy.

The consumer´s choice for a homemade meal substitute depends on several factors, such as taste, its similarity to their homemade counterpart, the main ingredients or level of freshness. The quality of these factors will depend if the product is chosen by the consumer or not. Also, its expiration date and degree of difficulty to prepare are important aspects to consider. Several studies have demonstrated that products that have a longer expiration date and are easy to prepare are preferable by the consumers. This indicates that it is necessary to develop new technologies maintain foods fresher for longer periods of time.

Previous studies have been performed to analyse how prepared meals were perceived by the elderly with respect to homemade meals. The homemade meals were more popular among this population, as they are more accustomed to these types of foods, and the consumer can control its taste, freshness and safety. For the elderly, the meal should also be simple to cook, flavourful and healthy.

On the other hand, the elderly generally view negatively processed meals, considering them as unhealthy, although they have the advantage of being readily available and do not require preparation. Also, there is currently a large variety of prepared meals, allowing for a balanced diet. Despite this, in many cases they are not well received, especially for consumers that enjoy preparing meals. Another disadvantage of prepared meals is the impersonal image it possesses, with few ingredients and in many cases too much salt and additives, as well as worse taste than homemade meals. Therefore, homemade meals should be the starting point in order to develop possible substitutes for the elderly.

The development of a homemade meal substitute should be performed based on two main aspects. One is to obtain an adequate correlation between short time of preparation and fresh, healthy food. The other is to develop the necessary technology for the food to have a longer expiration date with minimal processing.

Other studies have valued certain aspects that should also be taken in account when designing a substitute for homemade meals. There are a total of 8 criteria to consider: comfort, familiarity, freshness, healthiness, taste, sensation it produces, types of proteins it contains and the ingredients used. Except for the last three criteria, the remaining are considered highly important for the consumers. Based on this, the study analysed different prepared foods found in stores, such as frozen “paella”, pizza, tuna salad, fish or stews. Each of these products met at least one of the 8 criteria previously mentioned. These results can be used as a starting point for the development of new food products that are more balanced in the most highly valued criteria and therefore would be more appetizing for the elderly.

The technological development in the industry of homemade meal substitutes should focus on the perception and nutritional requirements of the elderly. Concerning its perception, the meal should have a pleasant taste, for them to be appetizing and easy to consume. As for nutritional needs, it is necessary to include healthy and fresh ingredients. Also, certain nutrients, such as fibre, should be included. The presence of fibre in a processed meal is an important aspect for the elderly. Also, the sizes of the rations should be smaller than the ones that are currently presented in the stores. Furthermore, the label should be easy to read, especially concerning its ingredients and nutritional information. It is also important to present the food with adequate amounts of water or substitutes (juice or tea), as it is very important for the elderly to be adequately hydrated.

In conclusion, the elderly is a great consumer market, as the number of adults over 60 years of age is continuously growing. The adequate design homemade meal substitutes can be an ideal business idea in order to facilitate the life of these individuals. It is important to focus on the criteria of taste, freshness, variety, safety, and familiarization with the food in order to develop a homemade meal substitute that is considered to be acceptable for this population.