- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

Never underestimate the power of a woman, the saying goes. And never underestimate the power of marketing savants hoping to win over women consumers.
Nutritional products targeted for womenso-called "fem food" started appearing in stores several years ago in the wake of a national boom in fitness and physical well-being. The rationale behind such products was that because of a different chemical and hormonal makeup, women need to eat differently from men.
Larger food and specialty stores now carry vitamin supplements, power bars and cereals for the female market, competing for attention on the same shelves as goods aimed for the general public. Web sites as well have sprung up offering such items.
Sample products include: Quaker Nutrition for Women Instant Oatmeal (marked, ironically enough, with the familiar logo of a male Quaker in his flat-crown hat); General Mills' Harmony dry cereal; Luna Bars; Viactiv Soft Calcium Chews; and Revival, the umbrella name for a host of soy protein products tagged "doctor formulated" and sold only over the telephone or on the Web by a North Carolina company called Physicians Laboratories that was founded by a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduate.
The trend, a growing one, suggests such questions as: What are the ingredients in these products that make them more valid for women consumers than men? Further: Should women have different diets, possibly at different ages, and, if so, what should be included in them?

It's a large subject, one that has been tackled in different ways by scientists and by researchers in the public policy field. Their opinions of the validity of such products often conflict. Several assert that studies in the field are inconclusive or biased. Many of the claims on such products are too vague to be useful.
The instant oatmeal box says, for instance, that "calcium, vitamin D and magnesium help form strong bone tissue. Recent studies show that soy works with calcium to maintain bone strength. 'Nutrition for Women' provides all of these critical nutrients to help you maintain healthy bones." The studies mentioned are not named.
Harmony, which calls itself "a low-fat nutritional cereal for women," states that "antioxidant vitamins C & E protect healthy cells from damage and help maintain a healthy immune system."
Most of the vitamins and minerals in women's foods can be obtained more simply and cheaply from an ordinary multivitamin-mineral supplement, Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, writes in the November Nutrition Action Healthletter in an article titled "Our Bodies, Their Sales." The exceptions, she says, are calcium and magnesium, of which many of these products can help meet the recommended daily allowance.
There is no doubt that oatmeal is a good source of protein, says Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who believes most women don't eat enough foods containing protein. And Ruth Kava, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health, says that "the betaglucan in oats has been found to be good for lowering cholesterol and is approved as a health claim by the Food and Drug Administration."
Men as well as women would profit in either case.

Both Harmony and the instant oatmeal stress the benefits of soy in their ingredents, but at least Quaker hedges its bet. "Soy may also help you maintain healthy estrogen levels as your body's needs change," the box reads. The word "may" is critical here.
"Soy protein has been approved by the FDA as a claim for lowering cholesterol," Ms. Kava says, "but as far as other things about soy, I think it is very much up in the air a lot of this stuff about soy still is in the valuable hypothesis stage."
Among other claims, soy protein is most often praised for its isoflavones, which might help in regulating women's estrogen levels. "There is not very good evidence about its aid for menopause, although most people agree it does lower cholesterol if you take enough," says Ms. Liebman in a telephone interview. "A lot of claims are made based on very rough comparisons between women in Asia and Asian women here. The culture [of women in Asia] may simply discourage complaining."
In the Nutrition Action Healthletter Ms. Liebman even takes issue with the FDA's allowance on claims that soy can help prevent heart disease, the major killer for men and women alike. "The Feds bowed to the food industry's absurd argument that people would eat four servings a day," she writes, saying that Harmony and Quaker's oatmeal cereals, contain "only" two grams of soy protein per serving when, she states, "you'd need about 25 grams of soy a day to lower your cholesterol."
Physicians Laboratories' founder Dr. Aaron Tabor began his business fresh out of medical school when he saw his mother struggling through menopause and created products that he said helped her. "A high amount of protein is a good connective tissue stimulant for the skin," he says.
Unlike Luna bars, which are directed mainly at the energy market, he asserts that his products have less fat and calories and taste better than his competitors. Touted as a way of losing weight without compromising health, Revival was aimed at women because "women make most of the health care decisions for the family." He dismisses comments about the contradictory studies on soy's benefits. "Every major industry has its set of critics, whether milk or meat or soy protein," he says.
"It's not just about what you eat, it's what you do with the fuel you just put in your mouth," says Dr. Peeke, who endorses the Revival line "but only as a backup system"because of its low amount of saturated fat. "Only .5, and total fat less than 3.5 grams," she notes, reading the label on a feminine, aqua-blue-and-white-packaged Krispy bar.
Women need less of almost everything than men, she says, having learned about certain differences in male and female metabolism while training for a marathon. "I discovered I needed 30 percent less of what a man needed," she says. "Men are less likely to oxidize well," she concludes. "They need the carb load more than women."
The "woman food thing" developed when corporations became aware of women's changing lifestyles, she says. "It started out with guy food, the power bar, and before long it wasn't just about athletics, it was having some kind of convenient food that was almost a meal replacement."
Women food, she notes, "used to be diet food. I spend most of my time doing what I call de-culting women from what I call diet-head. There are certain foods that aren't diet foods but which just make more sense: skim milk for instance, and the lower-fatted cheeses. So-called fat-free items are loaded with refined sugar, taste terrible and send women into sugar binges."
"We don't value food now the way we should," she says. "Better a small dose of high-grade ice cream over a mountain of fat-free frozen yogurt any day."

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