Asia’s burgeoning geriatric nutrition market

14 Jan 2016

Ageing consumers in Asia are increasingly demanding food products tailored to their needs, including food created specifically for elderly palates and functional foods with nutritional and disease-preventing qualities. Health-conscious elderly consumers are turning to products that aim to promote better health, longevity and stave off chronic diseases, as they lead longer, more affluent lives.


Functional foods are defined as products that potentially have a positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. Examples include enriching food with calcium for bone health, omega-3 fatty acids for brain health, and plant sterols and stanols for heart health.


Estimates of the size of the Asian market for these functional foods range from US$40 to US$70 billion, with growth rates tipped at about seven percent annually.


The unprecedented pace of ageing in the region is driving much of this demand. Asia Pacific is the most rapidly ageing region in the world, according to data from the United Nations Population Fund. By 2050, a quarter of the population in Asia and the Pacific will be over 60 years old. The population of people aged over 60 in the region will triple between 2010 and 2050 to reach almost 1.3 billion.


Targeting ageing consumers


The trend has caught the attention of global food industry players.


Mervyn Gribben, the general manager of dairy and nutrition for Asia Pacific at Kerry Group, said healthy agers and seniors are a key focus demographic for the company in the region. “We estimate that this attractive market segment is growing in double-digit figures in some regions,” he said. Kerry is developing products aimed at helping consumers manage diabetes, weight management, immune health, and sarcopenia - the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength as a result of ageing.


Dr Gary Fanjiang, Abbott Nutrition’s divisional vice-president for Asia Pacific research and development (R&D) said Asia is a “hotbed” for functional food development. Though the region has a younger population than the West, it is ageing much more rapidly, he noted. The United States-based healthcare firm has three R&D centres in Asia, located in China, India and Singapore. “Nutrition can support healthy ageing and allow the elderly population to reach their full potential…They used to say 40 is the new 30, very soon 70 will be the new 50,” said Dr Fanjiang.


A spokesperson for food giant Nestlé in Singapore said those aged between 45 and 65, known as “Good Lifers”, are a key research area in the Asia Pacific region for the company. “There is…a keen inclination to maintain their independence and not be a burden to their family, so remaining healthy and active is important to them. Cardiovascular health, mobility, vitality and cognition are all key health concerns for this older group of people,” said the spokesperson, noting that nutrition plays a major role in managing these health concerns.


Asia’s unique consumer preferences


Companies are also increasingly tailoring their functional food products to meet the taste profile of Asian consumers. Kerry’s Gribben said products that are winning in the marketplace “are achieving the correct nutritional profile without compromising on taste”. “Savoury taste profiles are also of particular interest for many key markets in Asia Pacific,” he added.


While there are wide variations in flavour preferences across the region, Asians tend to prefer products that are less sweet, agreed Abbott’s Dr Fanjiang. The company recently tested new product offerings with over 1,800 consumers in Asia[1], while also studying taste preferences and going into homes to find out how consumers store and use food products.


“Preferences vary country by country – in India they prefer sweeter tastes than in China or South-east Asia, and there are also differences between cities,” said Dr Fanjiang. The company’s nutritional drink Ensure, aimed at helping elderly people boost their muscle, immune system and overall health, comes in a red date flavour in China, and a honeydew flavour in Japan.


Besides flavours, textures are also an important consideration. Japanese food company Kewpie - best known for its signature mayonnaise - has developed a range of stewed or pureed ready-to-eat meals called “Yasashii Kondate", or "Gentle Menu". The products are aimed at elderly Japanese with difficulty chewing and swallowing, but who still crave the taste of local favourites like beef sukiyaki. The market for products targeted at ageing Japanese consumers has been estimated to be worth more than 100 billion yen, said spokesperson Akiko Kawamura, adding that the company has no plans to sell these products outside of Japan.


Last year, Kewpie estimated that its products accounted for roughly 70 percent of sales in Japan’s niche geriatric nutrition market. The country is arguably the birthplace of the functional food trend, with a tradition dating back to the 1980s of fortifying food products to provide health benefits. Japan also has the world’s most rapidly ageing population - already one in four of its 130 million population is aged over 65, a share that will rise to one in three in 20 years.


The demand for functional foods among ageing consumers in Asia is set to continue rising, and companies are taking notice. Even as food companies focus their R&D efforts on developing products for consumers in these markets, research firm Mintel notes that the use of local ingredients and targeted marketing are also key. All in all, the region is on track to remain one of the fastest-growing markets for geriatric nutrition.


[1] Countries include Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore