Young, muscled-up gym junkies is the common association made with eating protein products.
But there’s a huge section of the population that food developers and manufacturers are currently missing out on when it comes to this key ingredient.
A new research project, called Protein for Life, is investigating how the food industry can make protein products more palatable, cost effective and nutritional for older people.
The numbers say it all really, with the population of people aged 65 and over projected to rise by over 40% within the next 20 years.
The older age group is also the one that needs protein the most, according to Professor Emma Stevenson from Newcastle University, who is a principal investigator on the project.
“As we age, we need more protein to maintain muscle mass … as it’s really important in terms of maintaining health, stability and preventing falls,” she says.
And the food industry is in the best position to help tailor foods to encourage appropriate protein intake at different ages, says Professor Stevenson. There is even a push to get the Government to look at protein requirements for adults as the recommended intake is the same irrespective of age.
So what’s wrong with the current products when it comes to the older population?
Bulking up the food, not the body
Well, a lot of the protein products on the market are targeted at the people looking for protein to make serious gains and many older people associate them with bodybuilders, says Professor Stevenson.
“So there are high-protein bars, yoghurt and drinks – snack type of food – and these are not the type of products that older adults would buy,” she says.
“They are quite expensive, not palatable, quite difficult to chew and digest, and much of them are targeted at a sports nutrition consumer. Also, some of the products available have very high protein content and some people may struggle to consume the whole thing as they get full too quickly, and it means they can’t consume their regular diet for the rest of the day.”
Protein intake for the older population is skewed towards lunch and evening meals, and Professor Stevenson says there is opportunity to develop new products or reformulate current ranges, particularly at breakfast or for snacks in the mid-morning, afternoon and before bed.
Other foods that could be given a protein boost include soup, drink products, baked breakfast goods and other types of snack bars, she says.
The research is looking at biscuit products and plans to produce two prototypes, in partnership with food advisory company Campden BRI, to test it on the older population. The plan is to release a set of design rules for new products for the older population that will be available to the whole food industry.
Considerations when developing the products will include making sure that protein products aren’t more expensive than normal ranges and choosing sustainable proteins.
“We live in an ageing society and there is a huge marketing opportunity there as a lot more people are living to older age,” says Professor Stevenson.
So it’s not just for those bench pressing – older people could soon be looking for their protein hit.