Jonathan Swift hit the nail on the head back in 1711 when he said: "Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old." The difference today is that the threat of advancing decrepitude is not just an individual preoccupation. In the developed world, at least, it's rapidly becoming society's problem.
Not only is it a personal tragedy when we lose our independence, but the cost of care means we need to stay well for as long as possible. Functional foods look set to play an increasingly important role in helping us stay fitter.
One health worry in particular is attracting considerable interest. The next wave of products will be geared toward consumers worried about losing muscle mass as they age, predicts Lu Ann Williams, head of research for Innova Market Insights.
Speaking at the Institute of Food Technologists' 2012 annual meeting in June, Williams said we lose up to 37% of muscle tissue as we age, and our body fat increases by 114%. This makes foods with high protein content of great interest to consumers.
The medical term for muscle loss leading to functional impairment is sarcopenia, but the decline in muscle mass actually begins much earlier. The process can start as young as 40 and, by 60 or 70, more than half of us have lost enough muscle to meet the medical definition of sarcopenia.
While young people can generally build muscle in proportion to the level of protein they consume, many older people develop a cut-off point in their protein intake, below which they stop building any muscle. Age-related insulin resistance of muscle protein is the believed to be the main culprit.
"Older people develop a threshold for muscle synthesis. They also tend to do less exercise and eat less protein," says Troels Laursen, senior manager for health and performance nutrition for Arla Foods Ingredients (AFI). The firm is exploring the benefits of whey proteins for reversing this trend.
It has already identified strong demand for its proteins (sold under the Lacprodan brand) in drinks aimed at clinical settings, such as hospitals and care homes, but Laursen says whey protein fortification now looks poised to hit the mainstream.
"In a medical setting protein supplementation and its benefits are well established: reduced hospital stays and a lower risk of complications. But sarcopenia is a natural development that's affecting all of us, so we're seeing a lot of interest from functional food firms and food firms in general," he says.
"[Sarcopenia] doesn't just happen at 60," agrees Aine Hallihan, head of research and development for Irish functional ingredients supplier Carbery. Carbery makes Isolac Clear +, which can be used to add protein to a range of functional beverages. The firm is taking part in a major research project to confirm whether the right nutrition and lifestyle changes can reverse muscle loss. The project is led by Professor Phil Jakeman at the University of Limerick.
"There have been extensive studies on the ability of protein to build muscle, but so far it's really been applied to sports nutrition," says Hallihan. "We're now one year into the study and we expect the results next year." With the first cohort of people now through the study, she is confident the results will support the benefits of whey protein supplements and fortification.
Hallihan believes segmented marketing will be the key to successful engagement with older consumers: "The needs of someone who is institutionalised will be very different from those of someone who's just retired, and I think we'll see firms breaking the market down."
Both Carbery and AFI are promoting whey proteins, and research seems to support their assertion that whey, in particular, contains an ideal blend of amino acids to provoke the maximum muscle-building response compared with other proteins.
Of course, the frailty that comes with sarcopenia is only one of the 'delights' ageing may have in store. A loss of mental acuity is a distressing fact of life for many older people. A variety of functional ingredients and supplements are being investigated to help prevent mental decline, including the phytochemicals in blueberries and pomegranates and omega-3 oils from fish and other sources.
Milk protein concentrates may also be able to help here, according to AFI. They have a high concentration of sphingomyelin and phospholipids, especially phosphatidyl serine, which declines markedly in the ageing brain. Compliance can be a big problem when trying to treat people facing age-related memory impairment and similar cognitive challenges, but AFI's Lacprodan PL-20 can be used in milky beverages, yogurts, bars and puddings that can be designed to appeal to consumers.
"Our product has initially drawn a lot of interest from infant formula manufacturers because it mimics the phospholipids in mothers' milk, but we strongly believe the functional food market will be increasingly important," says Laursen.
From a marketing perspective, the trouble with addressing potentially serious health conditions is that no one really wants to think about them. In contrast, our ageing appearance is something that many of us are willing to spend a lot of money on, as the face cream and plastic surgery industries demonstrate. So it's unsurprising that functional food and supplement firms have identified skin as a key target in the burgeoning anti-ageing market.
For instance, Gelita started developing its collagen-based Verisol product two years ago. Collagen-fortified foods are already well-established in the Japanese 'beauty from within' market and Verisol is also available as a 20ml shot in Brazil. In Europe it's available as a supplement in Germany, but not yet as a functional food ingredient.
Gelita is targeting Article 13.5 approval under the health and nutrition claims regulation and has a new study with the European Food Safety Authority for assessment. Gelita is confident it will get the functional food go-ahead and is demonstrating its use in a variety of food matrices in anticipation of approval from drinks to chocolate.
Chocolate is also the vehicle for cocoa epicatechins, which can boost microcirculation and hence the appearance of skin. Other promised health benefits include helping to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Now a Cambridge-based start-up, Lycotec, claims to have developed a technology that increases the bioavailability of cocoa epicatechins 10 or even 20 times.
Lycotec's Cocoa Lycosome technology involves using lycopene or lutein to create vesicles within the chocolate matrix that protect the epicatechins through the digestive system and thus improve absorption. "5g of our chocolate can match 100g of normal chocolate [for delivering epicatechins], so you don't need to pay the price in terms of calories," says company founder Ivan Petyaev.
Permissible claims will obviously be a big issue in the European market. However, Petyaev is confident firms will be able to start with general statements, such as 'high potency' and says negotiations to commercialise the technology are at an advanced stage with at least one of the leading chocolate firms.