Foods and Ingredients for Women's Unique Nutritional Needs
Food and beverage manufacturers can help women achieve their goals by offering products that are good for them at all stages of life.
Eating healthfully, especially for women, can be challenging. From age 20 to 100, choosing foods with the right ingredients can improve one’s health through all life stages.
For manufacturers appealing to consumers who focus on what goes into their bodies versus what they can slather on or surgically modify, the foods and beverages female consumers choose also can enhance the treatment and prevention of certain illnesses.
This is especially important when it comes to those health issues for which women are at higher risk than their male counterparts. These include stroke, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Food and beverage manufacturers can help women achieve their goals by offering products that are good for women at all stages of life. Women generally live longer than men and therefore have even more reason to take care of themselves. The right ingredients can help them achieve optimum health.
For some, beauty is only skin deep. But health experts counter that eating the right foods can enhance the way one looks. Consumers, particularly those concerned about aging, want products that will improve their health from within.
Foods, beverages, and supplements containing ingredients that can boost one’s appearance, promoting smooth, clear skin with good elasticity and fewer wrinkles, are good choices for developers.
Many consumers are turning to products containing vitamin C, vitamin A (and other carotenoids, such as lutein, zeaxanthine, and astaxanthin), hyaluronic acid, soy, green tea, and omega-3 fatty acids. All these nutrients have demonstrated abilities to help improve skin health.
Soy isoflavones, for example, can bind to estrogen receptors expressed in skin cells, and estrogen is known to help keep skin young looking. As women age and produce less estrogen, aging skin becomes an issue. Foods using the right ingredients offer consumers options other than expensive cosmetics that merely cover up the problem.
Functional ingredients in green tea have been shown by researchers to increase serum flavonoid content and enhance capillary blood flow to the dermis. This process led to positive short-term effects after even a single dose of encapsulated green tea extract.
Tea is just one of scores of botanical ingredients manufacturers can turn to when creating foods and beverages for women’s health needs. Today, more than ever, women are eager to find natural solutions for their health concerns. Health practitioners, in turn, are focusing on ways that natural foods and ingredients can enhance their patients’ health.
Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, one of the early integrative medicine physicians and an authority on inflammation and fibromyalgia, is a strong proponent of curcumin, most commonly derived from turmeric. This bright gold rhizome related to ginger is commonly used in South Asian cuisine.
While cautioning that “there is no single magic food,” Teitelbaum points out that among curcumin’s many benefits is an ability to act as a mood regulator more powerful than antidepressants, as an anti-inflammatory more effective for arthritis than some pharmaceuticals, and as an aid in promoting other aspects of health. He cites a study published several years ago in PLoS One that indicated curcumin can enhance the positive effects of chemotherapy against colon cancer.
Women increasingly are expressing concern over inflammation. While acute inflammation occurs as a defense against foreign invaders and helps heal wounds, when that temporary state becomes chronic, it can set off a myriad of diseases. Not only arthritis but asthma, certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and Alzheimer’s all have been linked in some studies to chronic inflammation.
The current boom in snack sales highlights a growing opportunity for food manufacturers. In fact, an analysis by Nielsen demonstrated that snack sales are up all over the world, having reached more than $43 billion in 2017.
According to Nielsen, consumers “aren’t trading convenience for quality. As with other categories, they are striving to be more mindful snackers and searching for clean labels.” That and portability are key for women. Think individual portion packages containing dried fruit and nuts.
Walnuts are packed with healthful monounsaturated fats that help cut the risk of heart disease. A handful of almonds, also rich in healthful fats as well as fiber, protein, magnesium, and vitamin E, can lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, and decrease cholesterol levels.
Cacao, used to make chocolate, is rich in flavanols, compounds that can help lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots. A perfect trifecta of a snack might include nuts, dark chocolate, and dried berries.
Or, for a nut-free version rich in soluble fiber, switch out the nuts for roasted chickpeas.
In addition to many herbs, spices, and other botanicals, a number of foods have been cited as containing compounds that help combat inflammation. These include green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale and collard greens), omega oil sources (such as olive oil and avocado oil as well as other unrefined plant oils), nuts (including walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts), seeds (chia, flax, and hemp), as well as high-omega-3 fish and seafood.
Fruits, too, such as grapes, pomegranates, berries (blueberries, blackberries, currants, aronia berries), and cherries all work toward helping to reduce inflammation.
Foods and beverages that incorporate these ingredients are therefore particularly appealing to women who want to prevent and reduce the risk of chronic diseases and dysfunctions related to inflammation.
ABCs of Vitamins
Plant-based ingredients also are a good source of common vitamins and minerals. For example, vitamin C, integral to the health of collagen in skin, is readily available from macronutrients. Juice-based beverages can deliver adequate amounts of this vital nutrient.
However, some vitamins, such as vitamin A and other carotenoids, can be harder to derive directly from plant foods in sufficient amounts. Therefore, female consumers are more likely to seek out products fortified with these compounds.
Of the fat-soluble vitamins, in addition to vitamins D, E, and K—all important for women’s bodies—vitamin A and other carotenoids are receiving more attention for their roles in promoting health in this half of the population.
Carotenoids of recent study include astaxanthin, phytoene, and phytofluene. Astaxanthin, commonly derived from red microalgae, has demonstrated proven effects in supporting healthier skin. So, too, have phytoene and phytofluene, colorless and odorless carotenoids that not only protect against oxidative damage (especially from sun exposure), but also can help brighten skin and even out complexion due to their ability to inhibit production of melanin, thus controlling pigmentation.
As with many of the carotenoids, phytoene and phytofluene have shown anti-aging properties not only through protection from DNA-disrupting UV light and oxidative damage, but by reducing inflammation.
Of course, in addition to lipid-soluble vitamins, lipids themselves are necessary for whole health. Functional lipids have long been recognized for helping to prevent or manage diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive function, and obesity.
Functional lipids and their common food sources include omega-3s (fatty fish like mackerel, sardines, tuna), omega-6 (vegetable oil, salad dressings, nuts), conjugated linoleic acid (milk, egg yolk, plain yogurt, etc.), medium chain triglycerides (animal fat, red palm oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter), and phytosterols (wheat germ, corn oil, canola oil, almonds, peanuts, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, flaxseed, olive oil, sesame seeds).
Known for their preventive care qualities, the B vitamins are in a league of their own. B12, for example—found in green vegetables, dairy, meat, and whole and enriched grains—is vital for nerve function, red blood cell formation, and producing DNA.
Most people get enough B12 through a balanced diet, but vegans or vegetarians are at risk of developing a deficiency. Such deficiency can lead to anemia, GI disorders, fatigue, depression, dementia, muscle weakness, and confusion.
B vitamins also are tied to a lower incidence of stroke, the third leading cause of death for women.
Folate, most often associated with health for women of childbearing years and for fetal health and development, is critical for older women as well. Folate is integral to heart health. Biotin, also considered a B vitamin, is also gaining increasing attention for helping with hair and nail health.
Adequate amounts of this vitamin can lower risk of strokes and heart attacks by more than 20%. This is due in part to biotin’s ability to clear the amino acid homocysteine from the blood. High blood homocysteine levels have been associated with arterial disease.
Choline, also an unsung member of the family of B vitamins, is a nutrient known to be essential for women who are pregnant, as it is needed for fetal brain development. However, choline also is involved in healthy liver function, brain development, nerve function and muscle action. Since it helps support so many systems throughout the human body, adequate amounts of this vitamin are critical.
The human body can manufacture small amounts of choline, but the rest comes from food sources like salmon, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts. Eggs are one of the best dietary sources of choline, and a key ingredient many product developers turn to for multiple other functions in formulations.
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, osteoporosis and low bone mass are currently estimated to be a major public health threat for nearly 44 million US women and men aged 50 and older. Nearly 15 million Americans also suffer from joint pain, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Food and beverage makers can help by incorporating into their formulations vital vitamins K, D, and C, as well as minerals, particularly magnesium, calcium, potassium, and phosphate. Calcium is especially key when it comes to promoting bone health.
Calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium gluconate, and calcium phosphate all can be incorporated into a variety of food and beverage products. The latter two forms, however, are harder for the body to absorb.
Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and kale, can be incorporated into foods and beverages. So-called “green smoothies” are a trendy example. However, the calcium in leafy greens is not easy to absorb and oxalic acid, concentrated in raw greens, tends to interfere with calcium absorption.
Other minerals needed for optimum bone health include phosphorus, iron, and potassium. Skeletal integrity also relies on magnesium. Research indicates that consuming magnesium can enhance hip and femoral neck bone density. The same study demonstrated that consuming magnesium can even reduce pain, especially in seniors.
With aging comes the progressive loss of muscle mass, which can lead to injury and disability.
This muscle loss—called “sarcopenia”—affects women earlier and more severely than men. Supplemental protein is critical for women after about age 40.
The best protein fortification comes from easily metabolized proteins, the main sources of which are eggs, fish, and dairy (whey and casein). Dairy protein technology has advanced to where clear, highly soluble protein can now be incorporated into beverages, delivering up to about 25g in a single serving.
Protein and its constituents also have long been promoted for healthier skin, hair, and nails. This is especially true of gelatin. Gelatin is a concentrated, hydrolyzed source of collagen. Collagen is the structural protein found in the connective tissues of the body, forming the matrix for, and comprising about 80% of, skin’s dry mass.
As people age, natural collagen production begins to decline and signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles, increase. For manufacturers, since collagen is colorless and odorless, it’s easily incorporated into a wide variety of formulations.
Peptides—fractions of protein molecules—from collagen are proven to be safe and highly functional sources of protein. In a recently published study, researchers found that collagen-peptide supplementation could be an effective remedy to improve hydration and elasticity and minimize wrinkling in human skin. Peptides also are beneficial for bone and joint health, a particular area of concern for women.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They are essential for repairing tissue, especially in the muscles, skin, bones, and hair. Since amino acids are not produced naturally by the body, they must be found in the foods women eat.
The nine essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Each has unique properties and plays crucial roles in keeping the human body functioning properly.
Leucine can be found in cheese, soybeans, chicken, pork, beef, pumpkin, nuts, seeds, peas, tuna, and many other foods. Foods containing isoleucine include cashews, almonds, chia seeds, soy, meat, and fish, brown rice, oats, lentils and legumes. Lysine is especially important for muscle repair. It also is known to support the immune system. Lysine is found in many of the foods above, as well as avocados and whey protein.
Pre and Pro
A wealth of research has demonstrated the value of probiotics to health, especially women’s health. Supporting a healthy digestive system is known to be a first-line defense in immunity. But probiotics also have demonstrable value in promoting everything from healthy complexions and improved oral health to better mood and balanced energy.
Of course, without prebiotic fiber to feed the beneficial bacteria, probiotics are of little value. Healthful fibers and fiberlike compounds such as inulin, resistant starch, and polysaccharides like beta-glucans, also boast immune-boosting capacity.
New research has added to the list of advantages from pre- and probiotics. A study of the synergy of pre- and probiotics and the mineral iron conducted at Marywood University last year showed that combining a common dosage of iron with a blend of soluble fiber plus probiotics can significantly improve iron uptake with no known side effects.
“My goal with this study was to look at how we can maximize iron uptake,” noted Dianne DellaValle, PhD, associate professor and research dietitian. The eight-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved 20 recreational-level female athletes, all of whom were confirmed to be iron deficient.
One group received a blend of guar fiber and probiotics via Regular Girl retail brand soluble supplement (6g guar fiber and probiotics) and 140mg of iron as ferrous sulfate; the other group received the iron supplement and a placebo. After four weeks, blood serum ferritin (a marker for iron status) had increased by 41% in the first group, while the placebo group showed no response.
At the end of eight weeks, serum ferritin levels had almost doubled in the experimental group. “The exciting thing about this study, even though this was a small sample and we didn’t use elite athletes, is that it demonstrated there are simple ways to improve uptake of even small amounts of iron,” DellaValle remarked.
Health-conscious women appreciate products that are flavorful and good for them. Understanding how functional ingredients help women’s bodies perform essential roles and stay healthy and energized can guide companies in creating products that female consumers can trust.