Feature Archive

Are 'For-Women' Products for Real?

Aspirins, bottled waters, protein bars, and other products made just for women are taking over store shelves.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

May 5, 2003 -- Move over, plain aspirin. Make room for Women's Tylenol Menstrual Relief and Bayer Women's Aspirin Plus Calcium. Don't get too comfortable, oatmeal, water, protein bars, and supplements. Women's products are coming soon to the aisle space next to you -- if they are not already there!

These days, the aisles in health, food, and drug stores are chock full of products specifically formulated for women, but are these products really any better than traditional formulations, or are they just a marketing ploy? Depends on the product and the woman, experts tell WebMD.

"I am encouraged by the introduction of new products specifically targeting women if only because it shows that we are paying attention to the unique needs of women customers," says women's health expert Donnica Moore, MD, of Neshanic Station, N.J.

These new products "call women's attention to the fact that they may have specific health needs that they are overlooking," she says.

For example, Moore says, "Bayer Women's Aspirin Plus Calcium calls women's attention to two very specific health needs: the use of low-dose aspirin for cardiac risk reduction and the use for calcium for improved bone health, and the new formulation simplifies these two needs into one pill."

That's good medicine, she adds.

Still, she says, "as with any over-the-counter (OTC) product, read the label, know what it is you are taking and why you are taking it, and if have any questions about whether these products are in your best interest, ask your pharmacist or doctor," she says.

Marianne J. Legato, MD, professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and founder and director of Partnership for Women's Health, both at Columbia University, is not quite as optimistic. "These products are manufactured by marketing pressures more then by medical concerns. I am always suspicious of an old dog with a new name," says Legato, author of several books, including Eve's Rib: The New Science of Gender-Specific Medicine and How It Can Save Your Life.

Women's Tylenol Menstrual Relief contains acetaminophen, a pain reliever, and pamabrom, a diuretic, to reduce bloating that may occur around menstruation, but women should talk to their doctor before taking a diuretic, Legato says.

"I'd rather a woman go to her physician and say, 'Do I need this? And if so, why?'" she says.

That's not to say all such products are bad news, she says. "If the products are evidence-based on sound data which is the result of a clinical trial powered to see if there is a gender difference, it would be a worthy reason for making a special pill," she says.

"There are certainly lots of reasons to have specific women's products -- primarily in the supplement arena," says Tod Cooperman, MD, president of consumerlab.com, a White Plains, N.Y.-based watchdog group that tests supplements and vitamins.

"Particularly with the vitamins," he says. "It is a very real issue with vitamins because the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) can be very different for men or women," he says. In fact, General Nutrition Centers, CVS, Nature's Bounty, Biotech, Natrol, and One-A-Day all have lines that are specially formulated for women.

"The needs of women can be different then men at different ages and life stages," he tells WebMD. For example, women of childbearing age need to get more folate to reduce risk neural tube birth defects than do men or women not of childbearing age.

More Than Just Vitamins -- Female Functional Foods?

Luna nutrition bars are based on this same science. "Luna bars are packed with nutrients that women have a hard time getting in diet including calcium, folic acid and other B vitamins, iron, and soy," says Tara DelloIacono Thies, RD, of Clif Bar Inc. in Berkeley, Calif. Clif Bar manufactures Luna Bars.

"Women don't need as many calories as are typically found in an energy bar unless they are serious athletes, so we created an 180 calorie bar," says DelloIacono Thies. By comparison, some energy bars may have as many as 300 calories.

But it's more than just bars. Nutrient waters contain fiber, vitamin C, calcium, soy, and selenium, and others claim to boost heart health. There's also Quaker Oatmeal Nutrition for Women, a hot cereal loaded with nutrients designed to meet a woman's needs including two grams of soy protein.

Don't Shoot the Messenger

"When we identify that women need something in particular, our goal is to get the message out," Debra R. Judelson, MD, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based cardiologist and the medical director of the Women's Heart Institute at Cardiovascular Medical Group of Southern California.

And some of these products help get important messages to health consumers and make women open their eyes and pay attention, she says.

"The take-home message for women is to know your own heath conditions -- know if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, or arthritis and know your family history of disease -- because until you know your risk factors and get basic medical information from a doctor, you don't know what health needs you must address," she says.

"Find out what you are at risk for and then can look at the plethora of opportunities and products out there and address the heath needs that you actually have instead of focusing on one health concern when real problem is another health concern," Judelson tells WebMD.

Moore adds that there is not necessarily a skull and crossbones on these bottles for men. "Certainly, if a man is taking low-dose aspirin to reduce risk of heart disease and needs calcium, he, too, can take the Bayer product," she says. "Always know what you are taking and why -- that's the real bottom line no matter what your gender."



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