Paul McCartney famously bemoaned getting older when he asked, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four?” Now almost 80 years old, McCartney still spent his last decade on tour (this author saw him perform in 2014) and often credits a healthy diet for his longevity.

Indeed, “nutrition is fundamental to health and longevity,” notes John Quilter, vice president of global portfolio – ProActive Health for Kerry Group, Tralee, Ireland.

And with the percentage of the world’s population over the age of 60 expected to double between 2015 and 2050, dairy processors could attract the consumers looking at food and nutritional choices as a way to maintain a quality of life in their older years, explains Ben Rutten, global business manager, milk, for Heerlen, Netherlands-based DSM Food Specialties.

“Many consumers direct their attention to food and beverages as a means of curtailing the aging process,” explains Jennifer Stephens, vice president of marketing for River Falls, Wis.-based Fiberstar Inc. “They realize what they put into their bodies is one of many ways to maintain health and overall wellbeing.”

A plethora of concerns

According to Peggy Ponce, director, product innovation for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Agropur, consumers become increasingly aware of food’s effect on their health in their 30s.

“Healthy aging refers to several attributes, which include skin maintenance and muscle tone, reduction of BMI … and maintaining physical and mental agility,” she adds.

While healthy aging is important at every age, seniors often are more focused on such nutritional claims. However, they might not react well to being called “seniors” in marketing materials, notes Erika Gayhart, associate marketing manager for Chr. Hansen Inc., Milwaukee.

“According to Mintel, 62% of U.S. consumers aged 65-plus think they are healthier compared to other people their age,” she explains. “This may attribute to why in America we don’t necessarily call out ‘for seniors’ claims on pack, but we can target them through benefits they may be interested in like digestive health, immunity and bone health.”

There are many opportunities for dairy processors in this space as older adults seek out products with nutritional and cognitive benefits.  

“DSM research shows that, among mature adults (51 years and over), 69% worry about eye health, while 52% and 53% are concerned about mental performance and mental and emotional health, respectively,” says Rutten. “This presents an exciting opportunity for dairy producers to innovate to differentiate their offering and appeal to this high-potential consumer group.”

In a study conducted by Kerry, immunity was the biggest concern globally in the healthy aging space, says Quilter.

“The immune system naturally weakens as we age, and … more seniors are adopting a preventative approach to their health,” he adds.

As there is not just one health concern that aging adults have, Anke Sentko, vice president of regulatory affairs and nutrition communication for Beneo, Mannheim, Germany, says processors could use on-pack claims to help consumers find the products that suit their needs.

“It’s not one wonder pill that you’re looking for that will make you young again,” she points out.

Dairy’s health halo

According to Ponce, scientific studies show that dairy products have a positive effect on aging.

“Components of milk, including proteins, immunoglobulins and phospholipids, have beneficial effects on physical and cognitive aging whether they are used as supplements, consumed as dairy foods or incorporated as ingredients in other foods,” she explains.

Dairy also contains a number of essential vitamins and high-quality proteins that are vital for aging adults, emphasizes says Renata Soliva, global segment marketing manager, medical nutrition for Amersfoort, Netherlands-based FrieslandCampina Ingredients.

“Calcium, high-quality protein and vitamins A, D and B12 are all essential for older people. Calcium is vital for teeth, bones and nerve and muscle function; vitamin D aids the absorption of that calcium and is known to help the immune system,” she says. “Protein is important for muscle mass, strength and mobility, and some of its specific amino acids and other milk derivatives like galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) offer even more targeted and/or additional benefits.”

While dairy products on their own carry a health halo, those with added functional benefits are growing in popularity, explains Quilter.

“Over the past six years, 11% of dairy product launches carried a functional claim, and 5% carried a high or added protein claim,” he points out. “Overall, launches of functional dairy products have seen a [compound annual growth rate] of 7.9% over the past five years, outstripping the growth of dairy as a whole by more than double.”

Let’s get physical

In terms of physical concerns, 49% of adults over 65 globally want to improve their strength, and 40% are looking to gain muscle mass, says Soliva, pointing to a study by FMCG Gurus.

“Given the central role of muscle not only in physical function, but [also in] metabolism and resilience, this would indicate a clear opportunity for brands to develop dairy products containing additional high-quality protein, with a specific muscle-related positioning,” she adds.

As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass, and this can lead to “an overall loss of independence and a decrease in quality of life,” says Matt Peacock, vice president of business development for Osage Products, Washington, Mo. But consuming the right types of protein can offset these losses.

“The risk of falls and overall mortality increases as sarcopenia progresses,” he notes. “By consuming enough high-quality protein in the diet, this can maintain muscle mass as we age.”

And whey proteins, specifically, have a significant impact on muscle growth and recovery, Ponce points out, which means that they can help consumers maintain strong skeletomuscular health as they age.

Whey protein is traditionally associated with ready-to-mix powder and protein bars, Peacock notes, “but new manufacturing techniques have been developed to allow for high levels of whey protein to be incorporated into more convenient ready-to-drink products.”

Aging consumers also are paying attention to weight management, and dairy can be beneficial here, too, because its protein helps promote satiety, says Stephens.

“Swapping out simple sugared snacks with cheese cubes kits or high-sugared beverages with dairy-based smoothies are a few examples where dairy is making a push for a more balanced meal and to curb hunger pains,” she continues.

Consumers aren’t just interested in physically aging well; cognitive health also is a growing area of interest.

“Alongside physical strength, the brain is now a major priority, too,” says Soliva. “This not only means ‘staying sharp,’ but feeling well and sleeping well, for instance.”

Phospholipids, which are a component of milkfat, have been shown to benefit brain health, Ponce notes.

With all of these scientifically proven benefits, an easy way for dairy processors to add a healthy aging claim is to fortify their products with dairy-based ingredients.

“Several dairy products can easily be fortified using proteins from milk — whey and casein proteins,” says Ponce. “With superior taste and biological functionality, these proteins offer product manufacturers the ability to target aging consumers with muscle-health and recovery opportunities.”

Soliva concurs that dairy-based ingredients are often the “most natural choice” for dairy processors looking to bolster their products.

“The nutritional composition of milk is unique, and it provides a range of intensively researched and clinically proven ingredients that support healthy aging,” she notes. “In particular, gut and immune health, which are concerns for many older people, can be tackled with such ingredients, and brain health is an emerging area of interest.”

Go for the gut

Dairy processors could connect with aging consumers by going for the gut — digestive health is an “area where significant amount of research is demonstrating additional benefits,” says Stephens.

And many older adults suffer from digestive health issues such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and bloating that affect their daily lives, says Soliva.

“Seventy percent of your immune system is based in the gut,” Sentko says. “And there also is the opportunity to influence that when you think about prebiotics, about probiotics.”

She adds that there is a clear association between low numbers of certain microorganisms in the gut and certain illnesses. Using prebiotics and probiotics can help positively influence the gut to prevent and curtail some diseases.

“Probiotics and prebiotics are key ingredients that play a leading role in keeping harmony in the gut,” Stephens emphasizes. “Typically, consumers associate gut health [with] dairy products like yogurts and other fermented dairy beverages. Today, probiotics can be also found in other dairy-based products such as cottage cheese.”

Indeed, one of the biggest opportunities for dairy processors in the healthy aging space is to make probiotic claims on pack, notes Gayhart.

“Depending on the strain, you can position your dairy product in connection with gut health, immunity or overall wellness,” she adds.

Research from Chr. Hansen shows that 70% of U.S. consumers expect probiotics to be in their yogurt products and that “consumers understand the link between probiotics and general wellness as they age,” Gayhart points out. The company offers a number of probiotic strains appropriate for dairy products.

“Our LGG probiotic strain is the most documented probiotic in the world and has been referenced in more than 250 clinical trials. This strain is primarily targeted for promoting immune health,” notes Gayhart. “There are several other strains that also meet high-quality protocols and have multiple human clinical studies, including our BB-12 strain that supports immune defense and digestive health.”

For its part, Kerry also offers a probiotic, BC30 (Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086), that complements dairy products, says Quilter.

“Supported by over 25 published studies, which demonstrate a range of benefits for both digestive and immune health, it certainly meets the growing consumer demand for scientific substantiation,” he explains. “Meanwhile, its ability to withstand extremes of temperature, pH and pressure makes it a great fit for the manufacturing processes associated with dairy.”  

It’s not just probiotics that affect digestive health, however. According to Soliva, the dairy ingredients “galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and lactoferrin are proven to have important benefits for gut and immune health, respectively.”

These ingredients are prebiotics that can help consumers who suffer from digestive issues. For its part, GOS achieves “a better balance of the relevant bacterial species in the gut,” says Soliva. And lactoferrin “is a proven immunity booster.”

Both are part of FrieslandCampina Ingredients’ Biotis portfolio — “a new brand that focuses on ingredients delivering clear health benefits and [that] are scientifically researched,” she adds.

Other opportunities

There are many other ingredients that could be added to dairy products for health claims. For cognitive health, this includes omega-3s such as eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Rutten emphasizes.

“Research indicating that DHA contributes to the maintenance of normal brain function — offering neuroprotective benefits and helping to support cell membrane flexibility for better neurotransmission and cell signaling — may be of particular relevance to dairy brands looking to market to older individuals,” he says.

These ingredients also offer cardiovascular and visual health benefits, Rutten points out.

And for dairy processors that want to emphasize bone health, added vitamin D could help.

“Vitamin D is also important for bone health in seniors, with research demonstrating that correcting vitamin D deficiency can help to improve bone mineralization, while also reducing the risk of falling and bone fractures,” says Rutten.

Beneo also offers an ingredient that can help with calcium absorption and, therefore, osteoporosis and bone health: chicory root fiber. Sentko says that only 30% of the calcium in a person’s diet is actually taken up by the body.

“When you eat chicory root fiber … you influence the environment of the large intestine, which normally is not a place for calcium absorption,” she says, noting a study by Beneo showed that this additional absorption of calcium in the large intestine is indeed reaching the bone.

Fortifying products with Vitamin B12 also benefits older consumers “because the mechanism for absorbing [it] often becomes less effective as we age,” explains Rutten.

Many seniors are deficient in this vitamin, but it is important for “normal nervous system function, red blood cell formation and energy-yielding metabolism,” Rutten notes.

Add Kerry offers an immunity-boosting ingredient — Wellmune — that “is supported by over a dozen clinical studies, including research carried on older populations,” notes Quilter, adding scientific studies are essential to back up claims in the difficult U.S. regulatory environment. The offering is a proprietary baker’s yeast that can be added to a number of dairy products.

“In a clinical study published in Nutrition, 50- to 70-year-olds taking Wellmune reported a 16% decrease in total upper respiratory tract infection symptom days,” he says.

An emerging area of interest, meanwhile, is high blood sugar, which Sentko refers to as a “silent enemy.” Beneo’s Palatinose is an example of a sugar that can be used in dairy products that doesn’t spike blood sugar and can enable dairy processors to make low-glycemic claims.

“When you eat Palatinose, you have a soft increase and a very slow drop down,” she says.

Sentko says that a study of Palatinose showed the ingredient was good for memory as well. It also has been proven to improve mood.