Girls Just Wanna Have Food

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Designing (Foods for) Women

By Kathy Bunch
WebMD Feature

March 19, 2001 -- Many women recognize they probably should get more calcium, soy, or folic acid in their diets. But eating foods rich in these bone-building, heart-healthy nutrients isn't always easy or appetizing.

Yet what if they could get those substances from a bowl of granola, a can of juice, an energy bar, or a muffin made just for them?

Manufacturers have long geared magazines, beauty aids, cigarettes, and a host of other products to those with two X chromosomes. Now they are tempting them with so-called foods for women. A cornucopia of treats designed to deliver the "holy trinity" -- as well as one or two more nutrients identified as healthful for women -- are blossoming on supermarket shelves.

And women are gobbling them up. The Mintel global database of new products lists "women's nutritionally designed foods" as the top trend for 2001, predicting that soups and bottled waters for women will follow. "It's one of the hot things going on right now," says Lynn Dornblaser, editorial director for the database.

So what's on the menu? Well, there's Quaker Oats Nutrition for Women instant oatmeal, and General Mills' Harmony, a crunchy cereal. And Great Awakenings, a soy milk product. And the Luna bar, a lower-calorie energy bar and the top-selling such product on the market.

Then there's Viactiv, a line of drinks, bars, and chocolates from MeadJohnson that calls itself "active nutrition for women, by women" and boasts of calcium, B vitamins, and antioxidants.

There are still other products for those going through menopause. Zoe Foods Flax and Soy Granola claims it's a natural alternative to hormone-replacement therapy, and Natural Vitality drink is said to be based on a "secret cure" for menopause from two Chinese herbalists.

"Women have unique nutritional needs, and they are very interested in making themselves healthy," says Cathy Kapica, nutritional education director for Quaker Oats. "These products are designed to help women meet those needs in an easy, delicious, and convenient form."

Driving the trend is the fact that most of the products are marketed to women over 40 -- even though they don't explicitly say so -- and "there's an awful lot of us. It's a baby-boomer issue," she says.

Another reason for the explosion of these products is recent research that supports the importance of calcium and the other nutrients in a women's diet, she says.

Susan Calvert Finn, past president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and author of Nutrition for Women, thinks the foods are a good idea since most women don't get nearly enough calcium and iron in their diets.

"Women always control calories," she says. "As soon as you start to limit food choice, you limit the availability of nutrients. These foods have come stepped up to supply them.

"Do we need every one? No. But we certainly need the nutrients that are often contained in them. We can get them in other ways, but these are alternatives."

For women who don't drink milk, it's virtually impossible to get enough calcium unless they take a supplement, Finn says, and "I would rather they get it from food."

But in general, nutritionists caution against consumers overdosing on nutrients -- noting, for example, that too much calcium can cause kidney stones, and too much iron in menopausal women has been linked to heart disease. They also caution against being taken in by marketing gimmicks.

"My thoughts are in some instances, they are helpful, " Barbara Gollman, a spokeswoman for the ADA, says of the new food products. "But you just have to know what you're buying and how to use it. It's like buying a supplement. If you know enough about it, it may be beneficial. If it costs more than the regular product, it may be a waste of your money."

According to a Department of Agriculture "What We Eat in America" survey, women are indeed shortchanged on important nutrients. Just 22% of women age 20 and older get 100% of the recommended daily amount of calcium, 53.7% get enough folate, and 37.7% get their daily ration of iron, according to the survey.

"What we're very concerned about is calcium and folic acid, especially in those women who could get pregnant," says Jonelle Rowe, MD, of the federal Office on Women's Health.

By the time they are in their 20s, women start to lose bone mass, and there's an acute decline during menopause, Rowe says. Without enough bone-building calcium, they are at risk of developing osteoporosis. Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risks of fetuses developing spina bifida. And women of childbearing age need iron because they lose it during menstruation.

The jury is still out on the benefits of soy, Rowe says, though this year the FDA approved its claim of preventing heart disease. However, women with a history of breast cancer are advised not to take it since it contains low levels of estrogen-like compounds, which are linked to the disease, Gollman says.

The energy bar Luna was launched in mid-1999 to appeal to women who griped that regular energy bars had too many calories, says Dean Mayer, communications manager at Clif, the Berkeley, Calif., company that makes Luna and Clif bars. Clif developed the Luna with 170 to 180 calories, compared with the standard 240 to 250, and packed it with 23 nutrients. In 18 months, it has rocketed to the No. 1 energy-bar band in natural-food stores, Mayer says.

Tori Stuart founded her Newton, Mass., company, Zoe Foods, when she saw her mother suffering through perimenopause. Her mother did some research and found that her hot flashes diminished when she ate flaxseed and soy, so Stuart decided to put those ingredients into her own brand of granola. The cereal, which offers one tablespoon of flax and five grams of soy in each 2/3 cup serving (Harmony and the Quaker Oats product each offer two grams of soy), is in 300 stores nationwide. Stuart plans to come out with cereal bars soon.

Nancy Knudsen won't reveal the ingredients in her Natural Vitality drink, which she says is based on the secret formula of Chinese herbalists. But the northern California woman claims it relieved the acne, heavy bleeding, and depleted energy that she experienced when she went through menopause. "We were blown away by how well its works," Knudsen, who used to own a health food store, says of the beverage, which comes in three flavors. "It not only makes you feel good again, but you don't feel like a victim."

And that psychological boost, more than anything else, may be the key to these new feminine products. "Women are taking responsibility for their lives," Knudsen says. "They want to be informed, and they want to take control of their health."

Kathy Bunch is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.


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