Special edition: Battling malnutrition

Is better packaging the key to fighting malnutrition in the elderly?

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Many foods that elderly people consume in the community or in hospital are difficult to open - meaning they don't eat as much as they should, warn researchers.
Many foods that elderly people consume in the community or in hospital are difficult to open - meaning they don't eat as much as they should, warn researchers.

Related tags Gerontology Nutrition Ageing

Industry should pay more attention to the design of packaging for foods targeted at elderly people who may be at risk of malnutrition, say researchers.

An ever growing population of elderly people is currently seen as a major and relatively untapped market opportunity for the food and nutrition industry. Yet the high risk of malnutrition in elderly people is a growing global problem that needs to be tackled by both policy makers and the industry.

Whether at home, in hospital, or long term care, diet – and more importantly the packaging it comes in – has been identified by many as one of the key contributing factors to malnutrition among elderly.

Research conducted in Australia in 2007 showed that 51% of the elderly people covered by the metropolitan NSW Health Service had some degree of malnutrition. The report highlighted the difficulty experienced by some patients in opening food and beverage packaging – with a number of these patients indicating that they did not eat the food because they could not open it.

A recent research paper published in Appetite​ warned that manufacturers of food and drinks “must consider the end-user of the product” adding that ‘fiddly’ packaging (i.e. packaging that appears to require dexterity to access the contents) and decreased hand strength are shown to influence the ability of elderly people to open food and beverage packaging – so putting them at an increased risk of malnutrition.

Ageing population

Ever increasing life expectancy, coupled with lower birth rates have resulted in an ageing population in which more people than ever are over 65 – and estimates from the United Nations only see this growing in coming years.

In 2006 there were an estimated 486 million people aged over 65 years, however UN figures estimate this is to triple to more than 1.5 billion by 2050.

‘Fiddly’ packaging

The Australian team behind the Appetite paper warned that there are clear implications of this difficulty of opening food and beverage packaging impacting on the nutrition intake of the elderly.

“This study identified five forms of packaging that could not be opened by approximately 10% or more of those surveyed. The worst performing were, convenience dinners (23%), water bottles (17%), cereal (17%), tetra packs 12% and condiments (10%),”​ said the authors, led by Alison Bell from the University of Wollongong.

pack type

“The major issue with water bottles is a lack of strength, whilst with cereal packages it appears to be a combination of dexterity and strength,”​ they added.

“Given the serious nature of the problem for our nutritionally vulnerable, unwell elderly trying to access hospital foods and beverages, pressure can be applied to package designers to improve packaging accessibility by older people and people with disability, thus promoting wider health benefits.”

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RE: Hospital Food

Posted by Nathan Gray - Science Reporter at NutraIngredients,

For clarification: The image of food on the tray is the sample of food products tested in the study. This is not an actual hospital meal, but rather a selection of different products and packaging types that could appear as part of different hospital meals.

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Hospital food?

Posted by Judith Narvhus,

O dear O dear - is that really a MEAL on that tray? I expect many elderly would have a better appetite if their food actually looked like food.

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hospital food for elderly

Posted by Anna Jacobs,

The manufacturers should label the foods more visibly too, not in tiny print hidden under a fold. And they should cater for the food problems and intolerances that seem more common in my age group.

I'm 72, had a sudden emergency stay in hospital last year and they couldn't feed me at all! And no one cared or took responsibility. For three days, my husband had to bring in food.

The reason was, they couldn't tell me what was in the so-called 'gluten-free' foods, so I didn't dare eat them. The wrong ingredients could have given me palpitations, and I was there because of atrial fibrillation.

The pre-cooked food bought from contractors wasn't labelled with ingredients for patients to see.

I wasn't being fussy, I was protecting myself. They just shrugged.

When not in hospital I have to make much of my own food, because of the stuff it contains that I can't eat (especially wheat/maize) and the sugar I don't want to eat. Even frozen chips often have a wheat coating.

Most of the time, I'm fine, because I can look after myself, but this hospital stay gave me a nasty shock.

It's a pitiful service.

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