As women demand more from the foods and supplements they consume, producers are responding with a range of products to meet their needs at every stage of life. Shane Starling reports.
Fact: women make 80 per cent of food-buying decisions in the Western world. They are also, therefore, the gatekeepers to the foods, beverages and other health products consumed in most households. Thus, it is no surprise that conventional foods and supplements manufacturers have long targeted their marketing campaigns toward women. The product might be intended for Dad or the children, but Mum is usually the one who buys it. Dog food is for dogs, but it's humans who buy it. Same principle.
Ironically, until just recently, foods and other health products designed to meet female needs were few and far between. (The patriarchal dominance of scientific and business culture may have something to answer for here.)
After all, research has shown that women are more interested in the relationship between foods/supplements and good health than men. They also take more dietary supplements and herbal remedies than men. Women have a greater understanding of the ingredients that make up the foods, beverages and supplements they and their families consume.
Market researchers The Hartman Group, based in Washington state, in a 2001 study on women's wellness, found a trend toward increased self-care amongst women, who generally, compared with men, tend to be more vigilant, more likely to read nutritional labels and more likely to seek out information from health care professionals and other sources, such as magazines and promotional literature.
In another marketing study, Michigan-based Market Strategies Inc found that women had less confidence in their regular diet's ability to meet their nutritional needs. In 1994, 70 per cent believed their regular diet was sufficient, but by 2000, 46 per cent did. During the same period, those who believed they needed added nutrients increased from 54 per cent to 70 per cent.
Food and supplements producers are actively responding to this situation, making the 'foods for women' market a burgeoning and increasingly specialised one. Milks, cereals, breads, nutrient bars and supplements are just a few of the female-specific products available to the modern, health-conscious woman, whether elderly or young, pregnant, breast-feeding, menopausal, fighting a disease, or wishing to improve her appearance.
Healthy cereals, such as General Mills' Harmony and Quaker Oats Nutrition for Women oatmeal, have become part of the mainstream diet. Other products are popping up all over, such as Jenny Craig diet bars, Mead Johnson's Viactiv calcium chews, and a host of other nutritional bars. French Meadow markets bread with isoflavones, and Natural Vitality has a bar called New You, both aimed at women. Soy products continue to enjoy widespread popularity.
"It used to be you couldn't have a woman in a clinical trial, but in the last 20 years women have become more and more important in the eyes of those making supplements and foods," says Norman Farnsworth, PhD, research professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois. "Now there are all kinds of women-only trials going on, so the number of products aimed at women has proliferated."
It's a movement whose time has come, according to Angela Tsetsis, executive director of marketing at Maryland-based ingredients supplier Martek Biosciences. "It's about time we realised men and women are different. It is being shown again and again how radically different men's and women's bodies are and how differently they react to nutritional inputs."
In an effort to rectify this situation, the US National Institutes of Health has established an Office of Research on Women's Health and instigated a policy that ensures that women are included in all relevant government-funded clinical research.
Martek, which in the past has specialised in the infant nutrition market with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) oils, recently acquired another DHA producer, OmegaTech, with the intent of fast-tracking its expansion into the women's food market.
"We are doing some work to incorporate DHA into food products such as yoghurts, soy milks and nutrition bars. We are talking to some companies that produce these products," notes Tsetsis. "We are particularly interested in expanding into the pregnancy market."
WH Leong, vice president of Carotech, a New Jersey-based ingredients supplier, agrees that ingredients suppliers and food manufacturers ignore the nutritional needs of women. "Women want to know more about foods and supplements that can have a positive effect on their daily lives. More than ever, they are looking for products that address their specific needs, especially products that target conditions like bone loss, pregnancy, breast health and PMS."
Carotech's primary ingredients are a range of palm-derived tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E, being applied as natural alternatives for women undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to counter the effects of menopause.
"Women are taking greater control of their lives, and there is a market for alternative therapies because of this," Leong says. Carotech's tocotrienols can be found in nutraceuticals, functional foods and drinks, as well as cosmeceuticals.
Herbs For Harriet
Herbal remedies such as black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense), both of which have made inroads into the traditionally soy-dominated menopause-relief market, are gaining in popularity, although generally limited to the supplements market.
The negative press in the past year that linked HRT treatment to ovarian cancer has boosted growth in alternative therapies in this area. Suppliers and manufacturers of herbal extracts ranging from chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus castus) and red clover to the root of the Chinese medical herb Polygonum cuspidatum have attempted to seize the momentum resulting from the landmark study.
Yet, despite scientific backing, the ongoing challenge for many complementary medicine practitioners is convincing an often-sceptical public of their efficacy.
Black cohosh is a good example. "Black cohosh was traditionally used by American Indians," asserts Qun Yi Zheng, PhD, executive vice president and director of science and technology at New Jersey-based Pure World. "It is indigenous to North America and was called a 'woman's plant' by American Indians. It has a very rich [anecdotal] history for helping women."
Despite the historic pedigree plus clinical trials backing its effectiveness, when HRT got bad press, black cohosh barely rated a mention as a potentially safe and efficacious alternative in the consumer press. This is a situation Pure World is doing its best to rectify.
"A lot of people need to be educated, so we put a lot of funds into educational programmes. Hopefully consumers will then educate the retail customers," Zheng says. "We also donate money to trade organisations, because we believe the industry should be doing as much as possible to educate the market. In the meantime, we are continuing to develop herbs that are beneficial to women and continue to fund science into herbals."
In the UK, supplements manufacturer Vitabiotics has no such problem when it comes to mainstream acceptance for its range of female-specific nutraceuticals. Eschewing the specialised health products and alternative lifestyle route, almost all of Vitabiotics' advertising and marketing forays target the mainstream. The policy has resulted in high recogniton levels for its range of gender- and lifestage-specific brands, including Pregnacare, Wellwoman, Menatase, Perfectil and Osteocare.
But, according to Evans, there is more to gaining mainstream acceptance than conventional mass marketing. "We have partnerships for our brands. All our brands sponsor an organisation or charity. For instance, Osteocare works with the National Osteoporosis Society and the English National Ballet."
Eat, Drink And Be Mary
In the foods and beverages basket, overt health benefits are just one part of the equation because consumers have a different range of expectations when it comes to food. They expect more from food than they do from a pill. According to a recently published Leatherhead Food International paper entitled "New Product Innovation in the Food-for-Women Sector," there are five key factors food and beverage formulators and marketers need to keep in mind when it comes to female-specific foods. The UK-based association highlighted the following:
- Great taste
Fortunately for functional foods and beverage producers, women are more willing than men to eat foods to prevent disease and physical degeneration. Pregnancy, heart disease, intestinal health, breast cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, stress and menopause typically top the list of women's health concerns. Women now have the option of purchasing foods and drinks that claim to help fight the battle against these conditions. Skin and hair health also feature highly amongst female concerns.
Canadian organic foods producer Nature's Path Foods has leapt into the women's market with a range of cereals called Optimum. Mixing high fibre with protein, soy isoflavones and vitamins, the range targets female concerns from weight to heart health. And like Vitabiotics, the company has undertaken innovative initiatives to help maximise its passage into the market, including hiring an in-house dietician as a corporate go-to person for weight-watcher leaders, fitness instructors and other dieticians looking for educational materials and products to recommend.
Company president and CEO Arran Stephens says there is no secret recipe to cracking the women's market.
"Anything that will improve health, such as fighting cancer, weight gain, hormonal shifts and skin conditions, will prompt the purchase of a product," he says, adding that it also must taste good, be target-marketed and be priced right.
Which is easier said than done. "If the source of the apparent positive ingredient is unappealing, such as bacteria, it makes it difficult to sell the concept," says Stephens. "For instance, probiotic products must be carefully marketed to reduce the negative perception of the ingredient and increase the perception of benefits for health and well-being. Condition-specific foods present a challenge to market without overly focusing on or stigmatising the condition."
On the issue of dosage, Stephens says, "Food manufacturers cannot necessarily provide food products that will meet most women's needs. From a dietary view, the amount of ingredients needed is often at a medicinal level and would not be safe to add to food products that can be consumed in unknown quantities by the public, especially by children. These are all challenges food manufacturers must take into account when developing products."
Regulatory restrictions are another concern. In the US, only 14 Food and Drug Administration-approved health claims can be made on food packaging. Such restrictions are often even more severe in Europe and other parts of the world.
Aside from acknowledging the physiological differences between men and women, the proliferation of women's foods reflects a wider trend—that of increasingly specialised foods and supplements. As consumers gain a greater understanding of their bodies and what is required to fuel them, they demand more from their foods.
"This trend is being powered by our increased knowledge," says Peter Wennstrom, chief consultant at Swedish-based think tank Wennstrom Integrated. "You are talking about genomics and the like, which is all leading to an increased understanding of individual nutritional needs that are determined by your genes, your environment or your gender."
Producers can only but oblige.