As a target group for specialised foods, the elderly have received little attention compared to other population groups yet they are set to make up a quarter of the total European population by 2020.
The most dramatic demographic changes are in the oldest age group (80 years and over) that is estimated to grow from 21.4 million in 2000 to 35 million in 2025.
However food industry analysts at Datamonitor say that food manufacturers are missing out on a major opportunity by failing to target the over-50s. This is partly due to the myth that older consumers are very brand loyal and less likely than younger people to try new products.
"Seniors are, and will become even more, a market force to be reckoned with. The changing senior group has resulted in a generation that desires novel experiences, has the financial circumstances to trade-up to higher quality products and values convenience," says Danielle Rebelo, consumer markets analyst at the firm, and author of 'Older consumers: destroying marketing myths'.
Taking account of the potential burden of disease facing EU governments in the future, the commission has funded a dozen research projects to target nutrition for the elderly under the Fifth and recently launched Sixth Framework programmes. Of these, Optiford has come up with a potential area of healthy innovation : bread fortified with vitamin D to protect bones from osteoporosis.
Every 30 seconds someone in the EU suffers a fracture as a result of osteoporosis. The number of hip fractures caused by this disease is estimated to increase 135 per cent from 414,000 to 972,000 by the year 2050.
Reporting on preliminary findings at a conference this summer, the Optiford researchers said that bread was a convenient vehicle for increasing vitamin D among this group.
The vitamin plays an important role in aiding calcium supply to the bones, yet very few people in Europe receive anywhere near the recommended dietary intake, according to the researchers.
After studying intestinal absorption of the vitamin from two breads - white wheat and dark fibre rich rye bread - and a supplement over a three-week period, the vitamin was found to be as bioavailable when included in a bread as a supplement.
The results of this study have been submitted for publication.
Project leader and co-ordinator Heddie Mejborn told NutraIngredients.com: "We wanted to fortify a non-fat food. Vitamin D is normally added to milk or margarine but these foods are not always recommended. Bread is however commonly eaten across Europe."
"Also, we are very strict on fortification in Denmark, especially when it comes to drinks. While the US has fortified orange juice with the vitamin, we feel you can easily consume a lot of the vitamin this way, whereas there is a limit to how much bread one can eat."
The researchers note that no field studies have yet verified that vitamin D fortification increases status in the target population, nor that it decreases occurrence of osteoporosis or fracture rates.
However with further research such a product could have an important role in the diet of the elderly, fitting key criteria for this group - a nutrient-dense familiar food, convenient, and reasonably priced.
Other research projects due to report findings at the two-day meeting that opened yesterday include the Crownalife study on synbiotics and the Lipidiet project on how lipids can influence onset of Alzheimer's.
The three projects received €5.77 milion in funding. Senior consumers in the UK alone now represent a spending power of £267 billion (€383bn), and Datamonitor forecasts that this will increase to £300 billion by 2008.