Easy-to-eat foods for people needing nursing care are improving in quality and availability as makers look to tap a growing market in rapidly graying Japan.

Food makers are offering a growing variety of soft-food products with essential nourishment for people who have difficulty chewing and swallowing, while the products are also getting greater prominence on supermarket shelves.

Kewpie Corp., for example, has 54 items in five categories, varying in degree of softness and thickness, in its "Yasashii Kondate" (gentle menu) series of retort foods for the elderly.

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Among such items are "potage of beef and burdock root" and "potage of flatfish and Japanese radish," each with a suggested price of 180 yen ($1.60), excluding tax.

Kewpie, better known for its flagship mayonnaise product, developed soft foods for the elderly by using its baby food-production technology, taking its cue from customers who used baby foods for people who need nursing support, according to company officials.

"We want everyone -- not only people requiring nursing support but also those with a weakened swallowing function -- to enjoy eating through the meals we serve," said an official at Kewpie, which launched its retort meals for the elderly 20 years ago.

Meiji Co. started selling a new series of its "Mei Balance Mini Cup" nutritional supplement drink in late September. The company said a 125-milliliter Mei Balance Mini Cup is rich in energy with 200 kilocalories, containing indispensable nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

With a wide assortment of flavors, the product also targets undernourished people as well as those who suffer from mouth injuries like a fractured jaw.

"We will offer products aimed at nutritionally supporting the elderly because an increasing number of people receive nursing care at home nowadays," a Meiji official said, noting that elderly people may face malnutrition if they lose their appetites or eat a poor diet.

Major supermarket chain Ito-Yokado Co. has earmarked shelf spaces for food items targeting people needing nursing care at 105 of its 180 stores nationwide, according to its parent Seven & i Holdings Co.

In late September, a wheelchair-bound elderly woman at a store in Oimachi, Tokyo consulted with a sales clerk at a section devoted to foods for the elderly.

About 300 food items were on offer, and popular foods include retort items such as "nikujaga" (simmered meat and potatoes) and sukiyaki (thin slices of beef cooked with vegetables), and frozen foods such as boiled mackerel with miso sauce, according to the store. Some of the frozen foods are easy to eat even for those who have no teeth as they can eat them by mashing them between their tongue and upper jaw.

The store used to display foods for elderly people according to the degree of easiness to eat, as classified by the state.

But the store now sorts out products by food type, such as Japanese cuisine and Chinese food, in response to customers' requests.

Since then, sales of nursing care foods have increased some 20 percent on a year-to-year basis, the official said.