New food technology could transform senior care in nursing homes

Food products for seniors created by KTU scientists in Lithuania. Photo: KTU

Dehydration is one of the main problems faced by many older people due to psychological, cognitive, and swallowing disorders which affect the ability to eat and drink independently.

Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) scientists in Lithuania are developing a special food product to reduce the risk of dehydration and fatal choking. Soon, the product will be available to seniors.

“This innovation is a one-bite-sized food product coated with a membrane that easily dissolves in the mouth but is difficult to break down with fingers,” said Daiva Leskauskaitė, a professor at KTU Faculty of Chemical Technology.

The idea to create a product that would help seniors have easier access to water and other necessary substances came from Kristina Judinė, director and founder of Addere Care nursing and supportive care hospital.

“At our nursing home, we take care of more than 230 people. Six of the nine units are dedicated to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. We see their daily lives and know that if nobody reminded them to take a drink, they usually wouldn’t. Therefore, we have been looking for ways to help our patients get the water they need. We are proud of KTU scientists and the technology they have created. With such help, the problem of dehydration in the elderly seems to be solvable,” Judinė said.

New products to be tested in a nursing home

The biggest benefit of this new product is its composition. Composed of 95% water and enriched with vitamins D, C, B9, and B12, as well as iron, selenium, and zinc, the product will meet the recommended intake of minerals and vitamins for the elderly.

The product was developed so that it would ensure the full nutrient supply: “The product will have controlled release of micro-components during digestion. The highest amount will be released in the small intestine, which will lead to better absorption of the nutrients.”

The process of food product development and improvement is still ongoing, but Leskauskaitė said a lot has already been done.

“The composition of biopolymers used to structure water-rich foods and the possibility of adding vitamins and minerals to the product have been identified. The stability of these components during the technological process was evaluated, and a ball-shaped one-bite product was developed,” she said.

An important stage of the research lies ahead – testing the acceptability of the new products among the elderly population of nursing homes. The results of the study will be used to determine the taste, aroma, and colour of the products.

“At the same time, we will conduct tests to check the release of the vitamins and minerals in the small intestine. The results will allow us to evaluate the efficiency of the bioavailibility of the added micro-components in the bodies of the elderly,” Leskauskaitė said.

For the research, the scientists will use the SHIME (the simulator of the human intestinal microbial ecosystem) model, available at the KTU Food Science and Technology Competence Centre. It is designed for complex modelling of physiological, chemical, and microbiological properties of the digestive tract.

The final part of the project will be the production of a pilot batch, during which the packaging of the products will be evaluated and the final adjustments to the technological parameters will be made.

A student of the joint KTU and LSMU master’s degree programme in Medicinal Chemistry, Enrika Lazickaitė, is also participating, and is preparing her master’s thesis about it.

Developing new products in Lithuania

Regarding the reasons behind the insufficient fluid intake of seniors, Leskauskaitė said there are many different causes, but one of the main ones is swallowing disorders.

“Hospitalised patients with swallowing disorder dysphagia are at a higher risk of dehydration. These people need to consume texture-modified fluids but the elderly usually dislike them and therefore do not consume enough.”

Leskauskaitė added that dehydration in old age can also be caused by other problems, including depression, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s.

“Patients forget to have a drink or a meal, and the inability to use cutlery on their own discourages them from making any effort with food. This creates additional problems,” she said.

According to Leskauskaitė, as the target consumers and the main reasons for their dehydration were identified, attention had to be paid not only to the ingredients of the product but also to its features such as size, texture, and ease of pick-up.

Nutritionists and geriatricians argue that food specially formulated for eating with fingers, easily grasped and transported from the plate to the mouth, can benefit elderly people with cognitive impairment by helping reduce dehydration and improve their nutrient intake.

Currently available products on the market to reduce dehydration and the risk of fatal choking and aspiration pneumonia in the elderly, include a range of thickened, texture-modified drinks.

While this is an appropriate therapeutic strategy to reduce the risk of choking in dysphagia patients, many studies have shown that the use of thickened fluids alone does not have a significant effect on the increase in water levels. Also, the texture is not acceptable for all patients.

“No specialised nutritional supplements for people with swallowing problems exist in Lithuania, so a new product that is more advanced in terms of both usefulness and attractiveness is particularly needed,” Leskauskaitė explained.

Jim Cornall is editor of Future Food Today and publisher at Ayr Coastal Media. He is an award-winning writer, editor, photographer, broadcaster, designer and author. Contact Jim here.