Understanding baby boomers

by Keith Nunes
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The baby boomer demo-graphic is an attractive market for food and beverage manufacturers, be-cause of the group’s income level and interest in consumer packaged goods. With their established incomes and lifestyles, baby boomers outpace all other generational groups as far as buying power, and as they age, their expectations of food change. According to Information Resources, Inc. baby boomers spent more than $160 billion on consumer packaged goods this past year.

But there are stereotypes companies must avoid when developing products targeting this audience. For example, despite having a reputation of being a generation focused on health and activity, baby boomers are actually in worse overall health than their parents, according to a study by researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. The study, “The status of baby boomers’ health in the United States,” was published in the March 2013 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

Dana King, M.D., chair of the West Virginia Department of Family Medicine and lead author on the study, said he and his team were surprised to find boomers weren’t as healthy as previously believed. In fact, baby boomers have higher levels of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and higher rates of disability than their parents.

“We see a bit of a disconnect between the public marketing of boomers, because they are represented as vigorous, active and taking life by the horns,” Dr. King said. “That may be true in some cases, but what we see as primary care physicians are people who have chronic conditions. We realize we are seeing the sick part of the population, but it seems to be growing.”

To conduct the study, Dr. King and his team analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey (NHANES), including NHANES III (1988-1994) and the NHANES for 2007-2010, focusing on respondents who were 46-64 years old during either period. The two cohorts were compared in regard to health status, functional and work disability, healthy lifestyle characteristics, and presence of chronic disease.

While life expectancy is higher for boomers today than it was for the earlier group, more boomers are unhealthy by their own admission. Dr. King said only 1 in 10 baby boomers reported being in excellent health compared to one-third of the earlier group who reported the same.

The survey did not ask respondents to compare their health to the cohort population, said Dr. King. The survey simply asked respondents to rate their health.

“It seems like with the medical advances that have taken place this generation would have more of an opportunity to be healthier with what we have learned about cholesterol, diet and so forth,” Dr. King said. “What I think, instead, is that the study appears to show that they are relying on modern medicine as a rescue strategy.”

The study also indicated that the baby boomers included in the 2007-10 survey sample exercised less than their peers in the 1988-94 group.

“Regular exercise was less frequent in current baby boomers,” Dr. King said.

The survey defined exercise as walking, running or other activities such as gardening more than 3 times per week or 12 times per month.

“Physical activity is a priority for a certain amount of people,” Dr. King said. “You see more people walking and running in local 5Ks and 10Ks, and there are baby boomers who are doing these things and are in amazing condition. However, according to this study, that group is a minority. There are certain people who have done what the commercials say, but not most.”

The West Virginia University study did not use diet as a method to assess overall health. Dr. King said he and his colleagues have done a second study looking at how diet has changed between the two groups, and anticipates the findings will be published toward the end of 2013 or in early 2014.

Boomer diet concerns

Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, has identified the top five health claims for functional foods and drinks marketed to older consumers. The market research firm said health optimization has become an increasing focus for some members of the aging population, driven by rising consumer understanding of the role of a healthy diet in extending the active years. This is being reflected in promotion of the idea of healthy aging or aging well.

“The most popular healthy-aging-related claims for food and drink products concern digestive/gut health, energy/alertness, heart health and immune health,” said Robin Wyers, chief editor for Innova Market Insights. “These have general appeal among the wider population. But there are other, more specific, opportunities in age-related concerns that are currently featured much less often in product claims, including brain/cognitive health, bone health, skin health, joint health and eye health.”

Tracked product launches using eye health claims doubled in the last five-year period, according to Innova Market Insights. However, they still account for just under 3% of launches featuring an active health claim of any kind, so the sector shows big potential for future growth.

Omega-3 fatty acids also feature strongly for brain or cognitive health. This area of interest is likely to continue to expand, according to Innova, following the European Food Safety Authority’s approval of a claim relating to DHA and maintenance of normal brain function.

While about 60% of European launches using the claim are currently for baby foods, there is a clear opportunity for a move into new categories, specifically healthy aging. A range of other ingredients claimed to be beneficial in the area of cognitive health include B vitamins, CoQ10, ginkgo biloba, polyphenols,
acetyl L-carnitine and green tea, but there are few specific references to aging to date, with labeling simply highlighting their use and relying on consumer awareness of the benefits.

The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., has shifted its product development focus somewhat to make some of its product lines more healthful and attractive to older adult consumers. New products on tap from the company include Kashi Heart to Heart Chia, Raisin Bran Omega-3 and Special K Multigrain. Addressing another weakness in the category, Kellogg is redefining ready-to-eat cereal by offering different formats with Kellogg’s Breakfast To Go shakes, Nutri-Grain breakfast biscuits and hot cereal.

Changing shopping habits

Food and beverage companies as well as retailers are working to meet the needs of the baby boomer demographic.

In a May 29 presentation at the Citi Global Consumer Conference in New York, Melissa Plaisance, vice-president of finance and investor relations for Safeway Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., noted that aging baby boomers is one of the demographics the retailer is starting to focus on.

“Aging boomers want smaller package sizes,” Ms. Plaisance said. “They no longer have the family at home to feed, so they don’t want food to spoil. So there are a lot of different demographics we’re trying to cater to store by store.”

Baby boomers shop for a great price but not necessarily for the bulk products many mass retailers or supercenters feature, according to I.R.I. Many baby boomers have reached the empty-nest phase of their lives and have no need for what the big box stores offer. To get the kind of value they are seeking, more baby boomers are turning to dollar stores for grocery purchases. Dollar stores offer more concise choices and smaller shopping environments that help older generations focus on their needs and get in and out of the store quickly.
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