Older women give functional foods short shrift

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Functional foods Nutrition Heart disease

Postmenopausal women are not inclined to recognise functional foods
as a viable means of reducing risk of heart disease, finds a survey
that could inform marketing efforts aimed at this important
consumer group.

Research has shown that younger women have a higher tolerance to known risk factors such as cholesterol, hypertension and smoking, but after the menopause, when oestrogen levels decline, the incidence of heart disease amongst women rises steeply.

Statistics from the British Heart Foundation show that 51,495 women diet of coronary heart disease in the UK in 2003, compared to 62,400 men. Just 685 of the women were in the 45 to 54 age group, but this number leapt to 2,280 in the 55 to 64s, and again to 7,293 in the 65 to 74s.

Despite this, heart disease is widely regarded as a disease that affects mainly men, as a result of their unhealthy lifestyle.

Isoflavones, which have been shown to have an oestrogen-like effect, are being investigated to see whether they may exert the same heart-protection effect as natural oestrogen.

Since isoflavones (one of the best sources of which is soy) do not comprise a major part of the typical Western diet, dietary supplements and functional foods are most likely to be used to boost consumption.

It would seem, then, that postmenopausal women should be a prime target for marketers of functional foods for heart health.

But the new survey, which aimed to explore barriers to the acceptability of functional foods in older women, showed up some interesting issues that may indicate marketers have work to do in speaking to this consumer group.

It was initiated in light of earlier research that showed a low level of awareness of heart health issues amongst postmenopausal women in Denmark, UK, Germany and Italy; high interest in alternative means to alleviate menopause symptoms; but low level of interest in functional foods as the form in which isoflavones may be consumed (Koebnich et al, 2005).

The researchers found that postmenopausal women do not rank functional foods as a discrete product category but rather see them as occupying a space somewhere between food and medicine.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that functional foods must be assessed on a product-by-product basis. The nutritional value of the base product - be it a bar, a beverage or something else - appears to have as much to do with its acceptability as the functional product.

Not only do consumers in this group tend to have a distrust of health claims made by food companies, they also regard medicines as the most appropriate way to avoid with serious medical conditions.

Since heart disease is regarded as serious, functional foods are not seen as the most appropriate preventative measure.

Moreover, the social function of mealtimes appeared to be important for the women surveyed - to a higher degree, perhaps, than younger women who may have adapted to a more on-the-go lifestyle.

"Participants tend to reject the idea of customized foods that are geared to meet the nutritional needs of one, but not all, family members,"​ wrote the researchers.

The survey was conducted by S Korzen-Bohr and K O'Doherty Jensen at the Department of Human Nutrition and Centre for Advanced Food Studies at Denmark's Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University and published in Appetite​ (46 (2006) 152-163).

It involved 73 women aged 50 to 59 years living in London, UK or Copenhagen, Denmark, who took part in a series of eight focus groups.

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