Hong Kong-based Gencor Pacific sells its fenugreek ingredient Testofen for male libido and the same ingredient under the brand name Libifem for women globally.
Yet managing director of the company Ramasamy Venkatesh says sales for its male-targeted ingredients far outweigh that for women by about 80 to 20%.
“This is partly because the men’s [libido] segment already exists through the pharmaceutical industry. But women’s has not been clearly defined as a segment yet,” he told NutraIngredients.
There is only one drug approved to address the issue of low sexual desire, rather than the mechanics of sexual dysfunction i.e. blood flow to the genitals.
Approved last summer by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the drug Addyi was dubbed the first ‘female Viagra’.
Yet unlike Viagra – which saw more than half a million men given prescriptions in its first month on the market back in 1998 – first year sales of Addyi have been modest.
This has impacted Gencor’s ability to market its food supplement for women’s libido, he said.
“The female market will take longer to mature. A segment has to be created. Typically what happens is pharma creates a segment then the nutraceutical industry jumps in and offers a softer approach. But pharma has failed to create a segment [for women’s libido].”
According to Euromonitor International data, food supplements positioned for sexual health pulled in global sales of $622.8m (€548.77m) in 2015.
For Western Europe this represented one of the smallest health positionings with sales of $52.6m (€46.43m).
For Eastern Europe the market was one of the most significant positionings - up there with digestive and bone health, raking in $157.2m (€138.75m).
Let's talk about sex - and health ageing
One reason for this lackluster market reception may be women’s reluctance to talk about sex, he said. Teaming up with other more socially acceptable health positionings was one way to tackle this.
For women the company was focusing on the idea of healthy ageing and "family values".
“We are trying to take the sleaze out of libido and focus on health ageing.”
Equally for men a merge with the sports nutrition segment, with a focus on muscle strength through testosterone levels, may be helpful.
Health claim on the horizon?
Gencor has invested heavily in research for its claimed effects in recent years.
In 2011 a study published in Phytotherapy Research suggested daily supplements containing the extract of Trigonella foenum‐graecum and minerals improved libido for 81% of men, with 63% reporting an improvement in the ‘quality of sexual performance’, compared with no such improvements in the placebo group.
Maintenance of normal testosterone levels was earmarked as a potential mechanism.
Last year a Gencor-backed study of 80 healthy women published in the same journal suggested the extract leads to significant increases in measures of sexual cognition, arousal, sexual behaviour, sexual drive and orgasm in women.
The researchers said the extract also significantly increased levels of the estrogen sex hormone estradiol (E2) and calculated free testosterone compared to placebo.
The company has also invested in research with post-menopausal women, the results of which will be presented at the industry event Vitafoods Europe in Geneva in May.
Venkatesh told us the company was now in “active discussion” with consultants about further data needed for a solid health claim dossier, which could be submitted by 2017.
Further studies on mechanisms of actions were needed, he said, as was a focus on hormonal changes rather than more subjective psychosomatic markers of sex drive.
Yet the company was treading with caution given its past experience of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)-lead claims process.
Bad memories: “You can’t fight EFSA."
In 2011 EFSA was forced to acknowledge it had overlooked a statistically significant reduction in weight circumference in one of the trials referenced by Gencor in its weight loss health claim application.
Yet despite the admission the article 13.5 claim for its Caralluma fimbriata extract product Slimaluma was still rejected.
Venkatesh said EFSA’s treatment of health claim dossiers was often “haphazard”, and based on the premise of “poking holes” in evidence rather than seeing an opportunity to put nutraceuticals on the market as a “gentle” alternative or compliment to pharmaceuticals.
“There needs to be on the one hand requirements for studies, but on the other hand in the EU if you go down the claims path it’s a minefield.”
He added: “You can’t fight EFSA. One person says no and you are dead, you have to live with it.”
He said a health claim was not the be-all and end-all however, with Europe representing just one market for the products sold into other regions including North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand.
Yet he conceded a lack of an EU health claim posed a barrier in using the fenugreek extract as a “stand alone” ingredient in the EU, while manufacturers could use the ingredients in combination with other nutrients backed by related claims.