Women have complex nutritional needs that change over time. Perhaps for similar reasons, women tend to read food labels more than men do. Plus, they are more likely to be early adopters of those food and beverage products that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Because of this, functional food -- especially those specifically addressing women’s health concerns and unique nutritional needs -- are proliferating. But, more than that, processors who are savvy enough to “get in touch with their feminine side” and create such foods and beverages are prevailing in today’s retail market.

In a position paper on functional foods published August 2013, in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, co-authors Kristi Crowe, Ph.D., and Coni Francis, Ph.D., note that the global functional food and drink market is expected to reach $130 billion by the year 2015.

“Factors driving the functional food market include rising healthcare costs and the growing trend to self-medicate to keep those costs lower; the increasing age of the population; the obesity epidemic; and the high levels of lifestyle diseases afflicting millions of Americans,” they explain. “In general, functional foods have the potential to minimize healthcare costs; improve health and wellness; and give consumers greater control over their health by providing a convenient form of health-enhancing ingredients.”

Crowe and Francis cite research indicating that consumers with higher levels of education are especially likely to purchase functional foods and drinks. But, even among a broad cross-section of consumers, awareness of the benefits of functional foods is high.

Crowe and Francis also point to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) “2011 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey,” which revealed that 80% of consumers surveyed agree that functional foods and beverages can “help to maintain or improve health and wellness,” including bone health (81%); heart and circulatory health (79% and 74%, respectively); immune health (79%); digestive health (78%); and eye health (66%). The IFIC survey also concluded that 87% of Americans believe certain foods have health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

With shifttng needs across a spectrum that fluctuates not only through more pronounced physical stages of life but on a month-to-month cycle, women stand to gain profound benefits from functional foods and beverages targeting those needs. Although general categories of energy, immunity, etc., serve all genders, how much more vital are those categories to, for example, the working mother; the perimenopausal corporate executive; or the pregnant police officer?

In the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) position paper, Crowe and Francis identify three general categories of functional foods: conventional foods containing natural bioactive food compounds; modified foods containing bioactive food compounds through enrichment or fortification, such as omega-3 fatty acids in margarine spreads and eggs; and food ingredients that are synthesized, such as indigestible carbohydrates, which provide prebiotic benefits like oligosaccharides or resistant starch.

Most vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, fish and meats contain bioactive food compounds that provide benefits beyond basic nutrition. Examples would be the antioxidant vitamins in orange juice, isoflavones in soy-based foods, and prebiotics and probiotics in yogurt. All of these have been shown to provide proven, powerful benefits to women’s health and well-being.


A Woman’s Needs

Functional foods, many of which are packaged as readily portable snack bars or beverages, are “easy to grab and eat on the go,” says Francis. “Although dietitians know that you can’t plan a balanced diet based solely on functional foods, [we also recognize that] it might be easier for people to get the nutrients they need by consuming functional foods than by trying to ensure that they eat a balanced, healthy diet every day.”

Developed products containing bioactive ingredient compounds via enrichment or fortification -- for example omega-3 fatty acids incorporated into margarine spreads, peanut butter, bread, juice or eggs -- allow for streamlined, nutrient-packed “grab-and-go” foods and beverages uniquely helpful to the female physiology. These points are not lost on food manufacturers, who are introducing new functional products at a healthy pace.

This past August, The Kellogg Co. rolled out its Special K Nourish line of single-serve hot cereals and nutrition bars. It followed up last month with the Special K Coffee House line of Breakfast “shakes,” all of which overtly aim to serve female consumers.

Ingredients such as probiotics (which maintain gastrointestinal flora) and indigestible carbohydrates, such as oligosaccharides or resistant starch (which provide prebiotic benefits), are increasingly being used in baked products (such as bars and muffins), dairy (especially yogurt) and even beverages to boost digestive health. Digestive health can be especially important to women for whom the normal hormone fluctuations of pregnancy or monthly cycles can stress normal GI function.

In the demographics of weight management, women far surpass men in their concern over their weight and have much more specific concepts of what constitutes both healthy and desirable weights. But, data show that women who are managing weight with at least some discipline often do not meet the recommended intake for certain nutrients. The nutrients that most fall short include vitamins A, C, D, E and folic acid, as well as the minerals calcium, iron and zinc.

Protein, too, can fall short for some women, especially those restricting their caloric intake. Describing its shakes as “a convenient option with less [sic] than 200 calories per serving,” each Special K Coffee House shakes provide 10g protein, 5g fiber and nearly a third of the daily value of key vitamins and minerals of which women don't get enough. It also provides the same amount of caffeine as a 5.5oz cup of coffee. Available in Chocolate Mocha and Vanilla Cappuccino flavors, the shakes are sold in packs of four, 10oz resealable bottles -- another touch that caters to females, who have demonstrated less likelihood to “chug” an entire drink in one go.

The Special K Nourish hot cereals and snack bars not only provide nutrients female dieters can lack; the flavors developed for the line capitalize on the current wave of interest in exotic grains and superfruits. Both the hot cereal and the nutrition bars are made with a blend of quinoa, oats and barley, and topped with dried fruit and nuts. Each item contains fewer than 200 calories, and boasts 7-8g of protein and 5g fiber. The hot cereal flavors include Maple Brown Sugar Crunch, Cranberry Almond and Cinnamon Raisin Pecan, and the bars are available in Dark Chocolate Nut Delight, Cranberry Almond and Lemon Twist flavors.


Less is More

According to Francis, so-called “food minus” products (i.e., sugar- or fat-free) represent one of the biggest areas of activity in functional foods. The stars in this category are gluten-free products, intended for people with celiac disease who cannot digest glutens from wheat and several other grains. These foods and beverages have attracted a following not only among the small population of persons who are sensitive to or allergic to gluten, but also to the tens of millions who claim they “just feel better” on a gluten-free diet.

Besides “food minus” products, Francis identified three other types of functional foods currently generating significant consumer “buzz” in the marketplace: probiotics, especially Greek yogurt products; superfoods/superfruits (such as pomegranate, cranberries and other ingredients high in naturally occurring functional ingredients, such as antioxidants, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids); and “super-fortified” products, such as enhanced water beverages and the like.

Many new food and beverage products fit two or three of the aforementioned categories. The Special K Nourish products contain quinoa, a superfood, and are super-fortified. An example among beverage launches includes Nor-Cal Beverage Co.’s GoGirl line of female-focused energy drinks. All the GoGirl beverage offerings contain vitamins and other nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, CoQ10 or taurine, depending on the variety. They also are sugar-free, and some include the botanical ingredient Garcinia cambogia, which is reported to be an appetite suppressant.

The Luna Fiber line of woman-targeted snack bars, by Clif Bar & Co., tout 70% organic content, 7g of fiber per 40g bar, plus supplementation with what the company calls the “Core 4” nutrients for women’s health: calcium, vitamin D, iron and folic acid. Mamma Chia’s Squeeze Packs contain chia seed, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, manganese and other minerals, as well as fiber. They’re gluten-free, free of added sugar, vegan, certified-organic, kosher and non-GMO.

That highly on-trend category of functional ingredients, prebiotic fibers, is of specific value to women’s health. These fibers -- which include resistant starch, beta-glucans, inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides and galacto-oligosaccharides -- feed the beneficial flora in the lower digestive system.

“Prebiotic fibers occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, are non-digestible and, although not bulking [like psyllium], they do absorb liquid,” says Francis. “They help keep the colon more acidic, and a more acidic environment boosts the absorption of minerals, especially calcium, during digestion.”


Pregnant Pause

Moving deeper into gender-targeted territory, Credible Cravings LLC’s line of eponymous gluten-free, soy-free, organic snack bars were developed specifically to “support the nutritional needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women and their developing children.” CredibleCravings bars are made entirely of organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and sprouted seeds, plus incorporate probiotics for digestive health and immunity.

Meghan Lyons, nutritionist for CredibleCravings, cites evidence from a number of published studies indicating that probiotics could be helpful to pregnant and nursing women. Lyons notes that the added stress on a woman’s body during pregnancy can alter the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, which can have negative health consequences.

The CredibleCravings whole food bars were, in fact, developed by a team of obstetricians, midwives and nutritionists. The addition of a probiotic (specifically, a strain of Bacillus coagulans that received GRAS status from the FDA) could “help mothers create a nourishing environment for a growing baby by maintaining optimal health during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.”

The CDC urges women of childbearing age and women who know they are pregnant to take 400mcg of folate (folic acid) daily, beginning at least one month before getting pregnant. A B vitamin, folic acid is used by the human body to make new cells and has been shown to help prevent major birth defects of the baby's brain and spine (such as anencephaly and spina bifida) during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or nursing should also increase their intake of protein and their intake of calcium and vitamin D by 10-15%.

A number of bars and beverages targeting this stage of the active woman’s life have hit the shelves in recent years and seen significant success, in spite of the seemingly narrow market they target. As it happens, even women for whom pregnancy and lactation are not issues are still drawn to these products based on their “gender-friendly” status.


Age Plus

Menopause brings another hormonal upheaval and a different set of nutritional needs into a woman’s life. Leading up to, and including, age 50 (plus or minus a few years), women need to cut their iron intake in half; regulate their fiber intake; and slightly increase their levels of calcium and vitamin D to maximize bone health.

Vitamin K, especially the vitamin K2 form, has been recently recognized as being critical to bone health. It’s critical to the activation of osteocalcin, the hormone that helps deposit calcium in bone. A number of clinical trials have shown that vitamin K2 supplementation can reduce vertebral fractures by up to 60%, and hip and other fractures by up to an astonishing 80%. Studies also suggest that decreased levels of K2 can actually lead to faster deposition of calcium in the arteries, making K2 important for cardiovascular disease. Women are at higher risk for more severe cardiovascular incidents than men, who tend to show symptoms earlier.

Protein, too, is recognized as an important nutrient for women past age 40. “New literature suggests that as women age, in order to continue building muscle mass, they need to increase the amount of protein they consume at each meal,” adds Francis. Beverages for women that include added protein to aid muscle mass are becoming increasingly popular.

 Developing healthful food and beverage products for women means focusing on multiple levels of appeal and unique needs, and for an informed and sophisticated demographic. But, there’s no question of the value in serving this surprisingly underserved group of consumers. After all, 51% of the planet could hardly be thought of as a niche market.  

Will the Real Soy Please Stand?

Byline:  Mark Messina, Ph.D.

Mark Messina, Ph.D., executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute. He can be reached at www.thesoynutritioninstitute.com.

After a generation of understanding that soy holds specific health benefits for women, some recent research arose casting doubt—and even suggesting possible worries—about soy intake for women. Dr. Mark Messina, a leading authority on the science of soy and human health, helps answer whether the research indicates that soy contributes to health for all women, regardless of age, or does it affect postmenopausal women differently than it does pre-menopausal women.

It is important to point out that soy foods have an excellent fatty acid profile, high in polyunsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. Soy is one of the few good plant sources of both essential fatty acids. Consequently, when commonly consumed sources of protein in Western diets are replaced by soy foods, blood cholesterol levels will be lowered, because of the change in fatty acid intake.            

The cholesterol-lowering effect (a health claim was granted by the FDA in 1999 for soy foods and coronary heart disease, based on the ability of soy protein to lower cholesterol) applies to be both pre- and postmenopausal women, although there is evidence to suggest the effects are greater in pre- compared to postmenopausal women. Soy isoflavones are known to help improve arterial health (endothelial function), but whether other coronary benefits apply equally to both classes of women is less clear. Almost all of the research conducted has involved postmenopausal women. Still, one study on pre-menopausal women did find that isoflavones were equally effective in both pre- and postmenopausal women.          

An interesting and potentially highly important possible benefit of isoflavones was reported in a study published in 2011. This study found that, in young postmenopausal women 50-55 years of age, isoflavone-rich soy protein reduced the thickness of the carotid artery in comparison to women given milk protein. Much more modest effects were observed in older postmenopausal women. Carotid arterial thickness is a predictor of future coronary events.

When it comes to breast cancer, soy has recently generated more controversy. Asian epidemiologic (mostly case-control) studies show higher soy consumption is associated with lower breast cancer risk. In contrast, clinical (intervention) studies show that soy does not affect indicators or markers of breast cancer risk. Soy does not affect breast tissue density or breast cell proliferation, but current indicators are that soy intake reduces breast cancer risk. However, it appears that to derive this benefit requires consuming soy early in life, from childhood and/or adolescence. The evidence suggests as little as one serving per day during this period of life is sufficient to derive this proposed benefit.

As to whether or not women who have had breast cancer should limit their intake of soy foods due to the naturally occurring phytoestrogens in soy, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society concluded last year that breast cancer patients can safely consume soy foods. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and the MD Anderson Cancer Center recently reached similar conclusions.

The results of a pooled analysis of three prospective epidemiologic studies involving 9,514 breast cancer survivors over the 7.4 years the women were followed showed higher soy consumption was associated with a 13% reduction in all-cause mortality; a 17% reduction in breast cancer-specific mortality; and a 25% reduction in tumor recurrence. The last finding was statistically significant.

Most of the clinical research has involved either soy protein isolate or isoflavone extracts/supplements. This is because, in Western studies, when intervening with foods like tofu or soymilk, compliance often becomes an issue. Standardization also is more difficult. The epidemiologic studies typically are looking at the effects of foods like tofu, soymilk and miso, foods consumed by Asian populations.

As is the case for food in general, women should aim for consuming foods that have undergone minimal processing, such edamame, soy nuts, soy milk made from whole soybeans and, to a lesser extent, tofu. However, soy protein isolate is a great source of high-quality protein. And, if women are not consuming two servings of soy per day and want to try isoflavones for hot flash alleviation, then isoflavone supplements can be used to provide the amount of isoflavones not provided by soy foods. Isoflavones are the components most associated with women’s health.

A meta-analysis of 17 studies and 1,196 women was published last year and revealed that isoflavones might alleviate hot flashes. There also is intriguing new evidence that isoflavones improve skin health (the key work in this area has been presented but not published).        

Of course, soy protein modestly lowers cholesterol and perhaps also blood pressure, plus protein is a hot nutrient these days. So, including an isoflavone-rich soy protein (many isolates are low in isoflavones) in a food or beverage product can be a good strategy.