“Everyone should be able to eat well”
With an increasing population of elderly people in Norway the number of people with chewing and swallowing difficulties is rising. Researcher, chefs and food producers want to ensure that they too can have attractive, tasty and nutritious food.
Feast day. Nicely set tables – food with a smell and taste of tradition. The feast provides the right atmosphere for many people.
But not everyone can enjoy beef roast, mutton stew or lutefisk, like they did before. Some struggle to chew or swallow food for various reasons, and need food that is easy to chew or that may be eaten without chewing. Many of these are elderly, and several experience malnutrition.
Researchers want to address this.
New meal concepts
Senior researcher Jan Thomas Rosnes at Nofima is working on creating new meal concepts that can alleviate the situation. In cooperation with research colleagues and chefs from Culinary Institute (Gastronomisk Institutt), he will investigate how food should be processed to achieve a structure that matches the challenges individuals with eating difficulties have.
“We want make food that both looks good and tastes good, while also being nutritious and easy to eat. Everyone should have food that is possible to eat,” Rosnes says.
“It’s not just about boiling and mashing carrots. People with eating difficulties have different needs, and may need a different texture or structure in the food,” he says.
In order to achieve the desired texture for different needs, so-called “texture modifiers” that can be added to the food are used. The researchers are testing soya, bean starch and the algae product agar, among others. Nutritional measures may also be taken to make the most of the food that is eaten:
“We are also looking into the possibility of making the food more nutritious in that it can contain more of one type of nutrient, for people who need greater amounts of this,” he says.
The need for tailored food is greatly increasing
This special food can’t be bought in shops, which is a problem for people with eating difficulties who live at home and who themselves are responsible for buying food. In the years ahead this group will experience strong growth.
According to Statistics Norway, in the year 2030 Norway will have more than 1.2 million individuals above the age of 67, and the greatest increase will be in the age group above 91. The number of people with dementia ailments will also double in the course of 35 years. Pressure on health services will increase, and more will have to live at home and receive care there, with the help of relatives and volunteers.
When ageing, many experience physiological changes to the oral cavity and throat, which result in eating difficulties. If one becomes ill and has to use medicines, these problems are exacerbated.
Many also experience that both the sense of taste and smell diminish when they get older, and this can affect the appetite. If one consumes too little nutrients, one’s general health can deteriorate, and the risk of illness and infections increases. As a result of this, one can expect longer recovery times and more time spent in hospital.
With the current choice in shops, these people can only choose among a limited range of products, such as porridge, puddings and soups.
Studies have shown that many elderly who live at home are undernourished, or are at risk of becoming so. “If one is able to consume good, nutritious food, it can improve the quality of life, reduce unnecessary health issues and save costs for society,” Rosnes points out.
Little knowledge on special food
Currently it is hospital kitchens or municipal catering companies that mainly make food for patients or nursing home residents with eating difficulties. Often, frozen, pre-cooked blocks are used, which are thawed and heated before being served. However, one knows very little about how this food is used, what it tastes like and what its nutritional content is.
A broad cross-disciplinary fellowship in Måltidets Hus in Stavanger is now gathered under the knowledge platform called “The food hasn’t been provided until it has been eaten,” with expertise in health, care, service management, food technology, food production and gastronomy. Projects have been initiated in several areas, where the project “KOMAT – texture-adapted food for the elderly,” is one of the initiatives Nofima is taking part in.
“On the road from raw material and until serving, food often has to undergo several processes, such as heating, cool storage and freezing. Among other things, we will look into how different temperatures affect the colour of the food, fluid loss and nutritional content. And we also need to identify the shelf life of this food,” Rosnes says.
There is special equipment for making food with different textures, that are defined according to recognized standards. However, international experts disagree on how texture should be defined and measured. Researchers will therefore identify the correct parameters for measurements that may be used, both for research and for developing equipment.
Pure, nutritious and attractive dishes
The knowledge that emerges will be used in new products, with an aim to make them available in grocery stores in time.
The products will be based on pure foods such as vegetables, fish, milk, grains, eggs or fruit, and will have a high natural content of protein and energy. However, it is also important which shape and colour the food should have, and it is here Gastronomisk Institutt is making an important contribution.
The look of the dishes is of utmost importance. We often say that “we eat with our eyes”. If the food is attractive, it can improve the appetite, which is particularly important to those who are undernourished or at risk of becoming so,” the Nofima researcher say.