Sensory losses occur gradually as people age. They may compensate by brewing a stronger cup of coffee or putting more oregano in a sauce. When preparing a familiar food, the consumer knows what he is eating and may not notice much of a difference in flavor over time.

The Baby Boomer generation continues to have a profound impact on American society. With more than 28 million people, they make up nearly 30% of the U.S. population. A vocal bunch, Boomers are not afraid to speak out about what they want. As trend forecaster Suzy Badracco says, “Boomers want things the way they want them.” Badracco, who runs the firm Culinary Tides, utilizes her unusual background in criminology and nutrition to track and predict movements within the food industry for major clients. 

In addition to their outspokenness, Boomers have the economic muscle to get their way, controlling nearly $2 trillion in annual spending power. By 2010, Boomers will also fill the important 45- to 64-year-old age bracket. People between 45 and 54 have the highest income of any 10-year age segment, and those between 55 and 64 have the largest amount of assets and are the highest percentage of homeowners. 

“High wealth, high assets and high ownership of homes all impact food purchasing,” says Peter Francese, a demographic trend analyst for Oglivy & Mather. Consequently, food industry professionals are taking a long, hard look at what motivates the aging Boomer.

Effects of Aging Senses

The flavor experience consists of a combination of taste and smell. Even though the range of taste is narrowly defined as including sweet, salty, bitter and sour, people are able to distinguish many thousands of flavors because of the aromatic components. Taste is not nearly as affected by age as the ability to smell. If there is some decline in taste, it is more likely to be a decline in the ability to taste bitters than sweets, which creates unexpected advantages for food producers. Older people may be less likely to sense bitter off-tastes from vitamins in a fortified food than someone in their 20s.

By the age of 40, there has been a decline of olfactory sensitivity, and nearly everyone in their 80s has a pronounced decline in olfactory nerves. Ironically, there is normally a turnover of olfactory receptors in the nose, which is one of the few examples in adults of growth of new nerve cells.  Despite the growth of these new olfactory nerves, the sense of smell still declines as we age. “Somehow, the [growth of new] nerves isn’t able to keep up in the elderly, and they end up with fewer of them,” says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “And it may take them longer to mature. More immature cells mean they are less specific. Obviously, that would have a detrimental affect on the sense of smell,” she adds.

The decline in flavor sensitivity varies among individuals, and the onset may be hard to notice. “Just as some people need reading glasses earlier than others, some also have olfactory losses earlier than others,” Pelchat said. Trying to adjust for lost flavor sensitivity in older adults by putting more flavoring into a food may be a good strategy for some, but horrible for others.

The sensory losses occur gradually. People may compensate by brewing a stronger cup of coffee or putting more oregano in a sauce. When preparing a familiar food, the consumer knows what he is eating and may not notice much of a difference in flavor over time. One positive for the weight-conscious is that a poor sense of smell is associated with fewer food cravings, since odors can trigger a desire for particular foods.

Sensations detected by touch (i.e., the trigeminal nerve) inside the nose and mouth also diminish with age but to a much lesser degree than the sense of smell. This nerve enables people to feel food texture and temperature, including the burn of cinnamon or the cool of menthol. One problem often facing food formulators is how to increase flavors by increasing the aromatic components without also increasing unpalatable irritant levels.

Fortunately, there are more opportunities for giving people a flavorful diet than existed 20 years ago. The typical American diet of two decades past often was fairly bland compared to options available today. For example, the proliferation of ethnic foods such as Mexican, Thai, Indian and Italian means it is easier to obtain a highly flavored and interesting diet despite some decline in sensory abilities. Ethnic foods may also draw Boomers for other reasons.

Other Interests Impacting Food Choices

According to Larry Wu Jr., vice president, consumer strategist, food and beverage, Iconoculture, older Boomers are interested in collecting experiences rather than objects. They enjoy going to famous restaurants and eating at places where the chef appears on television -- or going on wine trips through Tuscany or taking food-related cruises. One reason experiences have become much more important is because older Boomers have the luxury of time, now that their children have left the nest. For the aging Boomer, eating becomes more about entertaining and socializing with friends, rather than “survival cooking” for the family.

Nostalgia is another factor in food choices. Brands that were important to Boomers when they were children may make a comeback. Examples include old candy brands or Cracker Jack, a caramelized popcorn.

Badracco agrees that Boomers are linked to comfort foods, but with a twist. Badracco sees success arising out of taking something that is familiar, that has nostalgia attached to it or childhood memories, and modernizing it. Boomers are educated and want to be up on the trends -- so, for example, taking something old and adding the newest flavor trend is appealing to them.

Food Trends: From Health to Origin

Boomers know from taking care of their aging parents that quality of life is just as important as long life. Although Boomers are generally healthier than people of their parents’ generation, they know health is an important consideration in their eating habits. With the benefit of more information comes greater concern over diseases of aging such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, joint health and arthritis. Likewise, they worry about how their heart is going to age, as well as their brain and eyes. Blood sugar maintenance is an additional concern. The number of people with diabetes is going to rise fairly dramatically, so demand for diabetic foods will also be sure to increase, says Francese.

The number of people suffering from high blood pressure is also likely to increase in an aging population. “If a doctor tells you in your 50s to lower your salt intake, you’re going to do it,” Francese says. “High blood pressure is a serious and chronic condition. You will see people being a lot more careful about what they buy, and they will spend a lot more time reading labels. They want those labels to have the information on them to help them make a healthy choice.”

As aging Boomers start experiencing the pain of arthritis, food producers will be confronted with additional challenges -- like making cans, jars and other packaging easier to open.

However, “Boomers are not as concerned as Generation X about looking younger,” Badracco offers. “They are focusing on feeling younger and aging gracefully. They try to tie food to health. Boomers would rather control their health with diet than through prescription medicine.”

Boomers not only want to be healthy, they want primary control over their health and will not be easily led with advertisements or follow doctors’ orders blindly. They are driven by health concerns but want healthy foods to also be tasty and indulgent. These are the foods that Boomers crave, especially in restaurants. If they are paying for it, they want to pay for indulgence, pampering and good service. “Because they not only want to live longer, they want to live better and have a higher quality of life,” Wu explains.

 Research has shown products that help with joint mobility and digestive health add to the quality of life, while antioxidants may well increase lifespan. Although health is probably the number-one trend because it gets a lot of media play, safety and food origins are another area of interest for Boomers, Wu adds.

The growth of the organic, local and sustainability food movements and the increased number of gourmet restaurants and food stores can be traced to wealthy Baby Boomers. When Boomers prepare food at home, they are likely to seek out the freshest and most local ingredients they can find, says Francese. Boomers also want to know more about where their food is coming from -- they want to trust who they are getting their foods from. “They want to look into the eyes of the artisan that made the product for them,” Wu adds.

The growing interest in organic and locally grown foods has lead to a multi-billion dollar industry, which is expected to continue its double-digit growth rates for some time, notes Francese. Although fresh foods are more expensive, Boomers have enough income to afford them.  

Another factor manufacturers need to be conscious of is perhaps less brand loyalty among the Boomer crowd than with some other consumer segments. The company that can clearly advertise the health benefit, and explain it, has the upper hand in the food market. “It is said that Boomers are not brand loyal, which makes companies scramble, because if they can’t depend on them being loyal, they have to capture them every time,” states Badracco.

Capturing Convenience

Convenience is something the Boomer generation has come to expect in their food products. To older Boomers, convenience in the kitchen means less preparation time with products such as Minute Rice and Stove Top stuffing. Younger Boomers act more like Generation X and want foods that are closer to the finished product, Wu says. Convenience means efficiency for Boomers. It does not have to be instant -- just easier. “Boomers want value for their money, but it does not necessarily mean it has to be quick: if it is quick, they could see it as cheap. It is important for the food industry to understand that,” notes Badracco.

In general, Boomers use a lot of prepared foods during the week, go out to restaurants and order take-out. The higher income and the less time Boomers have, the more likely they are to purchase prepared foods. A lot of consumers realize that eating together is good from a family dynamic standpoint and are using restaurants as a place to connect with family. Also, Boomers are spending significantly more money when eating out. When they eat away from home, they are not stopping at fast-food restaurants, but look to slightly more upscale foodservice outlets, suggests Francese. In households headed by people 45 to 54, 45% of their total food budget is spent eating away from home. From ages 55 to 64, the amount is 44% of their food budget, she notes.

Lifestyle necessities are likely to lead Boomers into portable foods in aseptic packaging, such as a container of milk that does not require refrigeration until after it has been opened. There will be a fairly significant increase in aseptic packaging, because as many Boomers move back and forth between a primary and a secondary home, they want to be able leave products that will not spoil, Francese explains.

What matters to Boomers is not the cost of the food, but the quality, the encasement, the utility and the uniqueness. Baby Boomers want what they want, and thanks to the influence of their numbers, they have the power get it.