John Ruff

As this month’s cover story points out, baby boomers purchase half of consumer packaged goods sold, but food companies allocate less than 5% of their advertising dollars to market products to them. Manufacturers of food and beverages develop products targeted mainly to individuals aged 18–49. This is a long-standing strategy that has proved to be successful for the food industry in the past. However, because of lower birth rates, better health care, and a surplus of aging baby boomers, population demographics are changing. In fact, the United Nations estimates that the global population age 60+ will soar to 22% or about 2 billion people by 2050. Food manufacturers can no longer count on a hefty replenishment of youthful consumers every year. Therefore, the food industry’s focus on a younger demographic whose growth is slowing may be shortsighted.

The baby-boomer generation is sizeable and diverse. It spans 20 years and includes different needs and preferences. Younger boomers are more receptive to functional food products bearing health claims than seniors (age 80 and over). Nevertheless, both groups are determined to lead robust, healthy lives. This may prove to be difficult, however, since more than 60% of consumers between ages 50 and 64 have high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or some other chronic ailment. While previous generations of aging consumers relied on pills and elixirs to address these ailments, today’s aging consumers are seeking alternative ways to address their medical concerns—namely, the consumption of healthy foods.

Consumers tend to be more skeptical as they age. Baby boomers have a traditional definition of healthy foods, and they tend to reject certain foods with health claims or advertised functional benefits. Refrigerated teas, sports drinks, and energy drinks carry very little weight with aging consumers. Consequently, although the food industry has slowly begun developing food products aimed at the health concerns of aging consumers, it remains to be seen whether boomers will embrace the products. They will demand food and drinks offering clear and understandable health benefits, and manufacturers will have to advertise these benefits without stereotyping aging consumers or making them feel old.

In addition, there is a lot more to creating functional foods that offer real health benefits than removing an ingredient from its natural source and adding it to a new product. In October 2012, the British Medical Journal published a study demonstrating that consuming at least two servings of oily fish a week helps prevent stroke. However, fish oil supplements apparently do nothing to reduce the risk of stroke. It is clear that certain foods are very advantageous for human health, but the efficacy of isolated bioactive food components and synthesized bioactives, such as antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids, added to food products or supplements requires more scientific study. A number of recently published scientific studies emphasize that we still have a lot to learn about the health benefits of foods and how bioactive compounds work. To that end, we must be more careful about the health claims placed on food products targeting all consumers. Even though boomers have expressed interest in foods that address digestion, cardiovascular health, and brain/memory function, it would behoove food manufacturers to secure stronger scientific evidence of the efficacy of food products designed to address these concerns.

Another issue may be the need to change the way in which investments in research about the health benefits of food are protected under the law. Without reasonable prospects for return on investment, companies may not be willing to invest in the research needed to make these discoveries, understand the mechanisms underlying food health benefits, and support claims.

Yet another challenge is that sensory perceptions necessary for the palatability of food—sight, touch, smell, and taste—diminish as humans age. While taste is the most important factor for all consumers, texture of food products may be a greater concern for older consumers than younger ones because, according to Peter Halley at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, 40% of the elderly have trouble chewing and swallowing. Packaging also poses added problems for older consumers. Aging eyes require larger font for legible labels, and many older consumers, including me, will switch to a different product if packaging is difficult to open.

With all of these considerations in mind, I have no doubt that food science and technology professionals can and will find ways to design food products going forward that appeal to aging consumers’ needs and prove to be as effective as advertised.


John Ruff,
IFT President, 2012–2013
[email protected]