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When it comes to health and supplements—and in a nod to the Spice Girls: What do women really, really want?
When it comes to women and their health, it’s no secret that women are more likely than men to put off their own medical treatment.1 Wives, moms, and even daughters with elderly parents tend to attend to others first, selflessly handling healthcare concerns for their families before addressing their own medical needs.2 Some experts worry that especially during the pandemic, women neglected not only their own basic health needs but something as simple as self-care, feeling unworthy of taking time out or spending money on themselves.3
That’s why it’s reassuring to hear from Mariko Hill, global innovation manager, Gencor (Irvine, CA), that the pandemic may have actually heightened women’s interest not only in products targeting immunity but also related health conditions. She believes that as a result of the pandemic, women now have more interest in managing conditions such as mood (including stress and anxiety), sleep, and even healthy aging.
“With COVID disrupting daily livelihood and burdening both economic and social activities, the prevalence of those with stress and anxiety is at an all-time high,” says Hill. “As a result, women have started resorting to supplements that enhance mood in order to cope with the burdens of the post-pandemic world. The levels of those with stress and anxiety have also led to the increased demands for products that can enhance sleep,” she notes.
She’s not alone in that thinking.
Draco Natural Products’ (San Jose, CA) Brien Quirk, director of research, identified about eight or nine key trends in women’s wellness and health in 2021, based on Google research, including some related to the effects of the COVID pandemic. Combining what’s popular on Google with what Quirk says are the “most commonly requested indications from customers,” he’s seeing things similar to what Hill is seeing: that women are seeking products that support sleep, mood, stress, and beauty.
Thinking about consumers with regard to their relationships with their health, Géraldine Blanc, head of marketing, Evolva (Reinach, Switzerland), acknowledges that COVID-19 has had many implications in that area. “In many ways, it seems that the pandemic has been more of an accelerator of already emerging trends than a generator,” she advises. Her perspective is that women, in general, have been extremely attentive not only to their health but also to the health and wellbeing of their family. “This has been reinforced by the pandemic, and we have seen women increasing their focus on their overall health,” she states.
Blanc is in line with market research firm FMCG Gurus, which she says found that the perception of health has evolved and become more holistic. She explains that “consumers are, of course, extremely attentive to their physical health, but they are also attentive to their mental and emotional wellbeing. Consumers now consider that all aspects of their health are strongly connected and interdependent.”
So, when it comes to health and dietary supplements—and in a nod to the Spice Girls: What do women really, really want? A selection of companies selling ingredients, developing formulations, and manufacturing finished products are only too happy to share some suggestions for helping women manage their health concerns.
Beauty Products from the Inside Out
In the throes of the pandemic, many women simply stopped going to their hairdressers, their manicurists, and their dermatologists, avoiding potential health risks that could result from being in close, hands-on contact with non-family members. That cautious approach, however, didn’t mean they weren’t still concerned about having healthy hair, nails, and skin.
In fact, women—and, for that matter, men as well—worrying about the health of their hair never goes out of style and certainly didn’t stop because of a pandemic.
Sophia Kogan, MD, co-founder and chief medical advisor for the brand Nutrafol, explains her company’s goal is “to remove the stigma and normalize the conversation around hair thinning and empower people to be excited and confident about their hair health.” To that end, the company offers a full line of targeted, hair-focused, hair-supportive supplements.
She adds, “In our research, we have found that women most definitely search for answers to compromised hair health. Although there are many reasons for thinning [hair] in women, there are certain life stages and times when more shedding and thinning are experienced, such as times of stress, after childbirth, and during the menopausal transition.”
In fact, according to the American Pregnancy Association, the most common period of hair loss related to pregnancy occurs approximately three months after delivery.4
Therefore, it comes as good news to many that this past summer, Nutrafol launched a new product, Nutrafol Postpartum, specifically targeting the root causes of hair thinning for women in that postpartum period.5 The supplement joins its sister hair-replenishing core supplements, the already popular Nutrafol Women and Nutrafol Women’s Balance, creating a trifecta of hair-focused supplements for peri- through postmenopausal (and now postpartum) hair loss.
Kogan explains these three supplement products “were developed using a patented blend of medical-grade, clinically effective botanicals and standardized ingredients that target the root causes of thinning, improving hair wellness from within safely and effectively.” She adds that there are stress adaptogens in all of the formulations, but the company also offers a separate stress adaptogen booster for stress-related hair shedding.
Science is important to Nutrafol, says Kogan. “We have a robust internal research and development team that is constantly working on finding new ways to look at the science of hair health, new clinical research, as well as pathways we can target with new ingredients.” In developing Nutrafol Postpartum, Kogan advises the company “worked with an OB/GYN and a team of physicians to better understand postpartum hair biology and the unique needs of women during this transition period—specifically the root causes of shedding [hair] after childbirth.”
When developing Nutrafol Postpartum, the company carefully selected ingredients—such as nettle, shatavari, and omega-3s—known to support lactation and with no known contraindications to breastfeeding. There is scientific research to support extracts from pea ingredients and apple, as examples, for reducing hair shedding and promoting hair growth6,7, while collagen, silica, and biotin have been shown to increase hair strength by supporting keratin formation.8
Managing Weight and More
Marcia Da Silva Pinto, PhD, senior technical manager, health ingredients, Evolva, sees huge interest from women in beauty-from-within products. She says, “While healthy skin is best achieved with adequate dietary intake of nutrients, there is also a place for ingestible skincare when there is adequate science to back up the claims.”
She adds that “with more scientific evidence being published around the role of microbiota composition on our overall health, compounds that have a positive effect on its composition will be considered for new product developments in the space of ‘inside out’ benefits.” And while the gut-brain connection is now well established, more recently, Da Silva Pinto says, research has shown that beyond the brain benefits, the composition of the microbiota also affects immune health and skin health.
Famenity Company, Ltd., is based in South Korea, a country known to beauty aficionados as a trendsetter in the market. JunKee Hong, PhD, research and development director for Famenity, states that interest from women in weight loss and skin health are two of the key drivers for growth in functional food products related to beauty health. “These trends are particularly prominent in the Korean health functional food market,” says Hong.
Like Da Silva Pinto, Hong agrees that the market is focused on inside beauty supporting outer beauty, and he sees collagen leading the trend in skin health. “After middle age,” he says, “as estrogen levels decrease, weight gain and skin elasticity problems occur. In today’s era of improved living standards, it may be necessary to try to keep your appearance younger than simply maintaining [a] healthy life.”
When it comes to the weight-loss market, he advises that “new ingredients are being proposed every year, leading to continuous market growth, and steady-selling ingredients such as Garcinia cambogia are securing steady sales areas centered on low-priced market.”
In the beginning of the year, Evolva launched a new-generation L-arabinose ingredient, a bioactive sugar that has reported properties as a prebiotic and for weight management when used in dietary supplements, either as a single ingredient or in combination with other healthy ingredients, according to Da Silva Pinto.9 Evolva is currently investing in ongoing studies to provide the science-based evidence to support its ingredient’s sugar-blocker properties.
Meanwhile, Gencor’s Hill says her company’s branded ingredient Libifem, a patented extract of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) standardized to 50% saponins, is currently undergoing a female exercise-performance study. The ingredient has already been shown to enhance testosterone and estrogen within normal human limits. Intrigued by the positive research results for Gencor’s Testofen ingredient, another standardized extract of fenugreek10, the company wanted to see if women could similarly benefit. “Therefore,” says Hill, “we are currently undergoing a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study on the effect of Libifem on body composition, muscular power, and endurance in female individuals.” Previous clinical studies on Libifem demonstrated its ability to enhance sexual health and reduce menopausal symptoms, she notes.11,12
Sleep and Mood and Stress, Oh My!
Anxiety, mood, and stress are now key focal points in the supplements market—including the women’s market. With eight product lines comprising more than 700 individual botanical ingredient products, Draco Natural Products fortunately has a number of interesting offerings to address these conditions. Draco’s Quirk highlights a few.
For example, there’s lion’s mane mushroom for women seeking a mood support/anti-stress botanical ingredient. Says Quirk, “Lion’s mane has been widely available in Asian grocery stores in the U.S. for decades but was not known about on a widespread basis in the general population. It is considered a delicacy with a lobster-like taste and is often added with other ingredients to a main food dish.” While it is not as well known in the U.S. compared to other mushroom-based ingredients like reishi or maitake, Quirk likes that lion’s mane mushroom “is a bit more pleasantly palatable.” As such, his company works with customers to formulate this ingredient not only in supplement capsules, powders, and pills but also in instant drink mixes, powdered stick packs, fast melts, and even instant-coffee blends.
Meanwhile, Draco’s D-31 Sleep and Relaxation formula is based on a key botanical ingredient, wild jujube seed (Ziziphus spinosa), says Quirk. He notes that a recent clinical study on Ziziphus spinosa brought some welcome attention to the ingredient. According to Quirk, “The study was shown to improve total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and sleep-onset latency at a dose of 2 g.”13 Draco’s proprietary formula blends this herb with other calming and sleep-inducing herbs, including white peony root, polygala root, and the aptly named collective happiness bark (otherwise known as albizia bark) “to create a more powerful synergy,” he says.
Gencor has a new branded ingredient itself: Calmaluma, which Hill describes as a standardized extract of Caralluma fimbriata that’s been clinically studied to reduce stress and anxiety in females (and males). “It has a unique mechanism of action by acting on serotonin receptors, a key hormone involved in mood and appetite regulation,” she explains. “Therefore, this brand can target both mood and weight management sectors and has been clinically proven in vitro, in vivo, and in human clinical studies to benefit both.”14
Cranberry Ingredients to the Rescue?
Any woman who has experienced a urinary tract infection (UTI) and is looking to avoid the next one has at some point turned to a girlfriend who has whispered back the words cranberry juice. While the scientific research is mixed in this area—some studies have shown that cranberry juice or cranberry supplements can help prevent UTIs, while others haven’t—it’s an open secret that many women swear by the berry.
In July 2020, following a petition from Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., FDA announced it would not object “to the use of certain qualified health claims regarding consuming certain cranberry products and a reduced risk of recurrent urinary tract infection (UTI) in healthy women.”15 Some in the industry applauded the news as an opportunity to honestly communicate with consumers about the benefits—and also limitations—of cranberry juice and supplements; others saw the victory as a squishy reminder of the complexities of qualified health claims.
In the opinion of Dan Souza, global product manager, Givaudan (Avignon, France), “women are proactively seeking natural preventative solutions for their urinary tract health. It is our job to build the best ingredients possible to address this need, share our work with our branding partner, and help them promote their finished goods to the huge populations of women who can benefit from it.”
Givaudan’s heritage spans 250-plus years as a leader in the field of taste and wellbeing, and fragrance and beauty. With the company’s acquisition of Naturex in 2018, it expanded its global position by adding a strong portfolio of plant extracts and natural ingredients for the nutrition and health sectors.16
The company’s largest women's health platform is urinary tract health. “One-half of all women will suffer from a UTI at some point in their lives,” says Souza, “while one-third of these women will suffer from recurrent UTI.” He adds that “given cranberry’s ability to support the urinary tract health market, and the growing trend towards proactive health, this market has seen sustained growth for nearly 20 years.”
Givaudan got more good news last year with the publication of a study conducted by researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine on Flowens, the company’s proprietary full-spectrum cranberry ingredient. The results suggest that Flowens may help women alleviate frequent urination, a bothersome symptom of overactive bladder. The randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial found a significant effect for Flowens in healthy women aged 18-60 over a six-month period. Specifically, the study found that women in the treatment group taking a 500-mg daily dose of Flowens experienced two fewer daily episodes of frequent urination compared to the placebo group, says Souza.17,18
Givaudan supplied the ingredients and funded this study because, as Souza explains it, as a leader in cranberry-based health and dietary ingredients, it is important for the company to support science. “One of the great benefits of conducting this type of research is the ability to find new applications, and Flowens was no exception,” he says. During the product development phase, research revealed that Flowens had a positive impact on men’s urinary health, says Souza. The company wondered if that might translate to women’s urinary health as well. “In parallel,” he says, “our research revealed a gap in the market for women’s urinary health solutions.”
Recognizing that consumers are actively seeking natural ingredients to support their urinary tract health, Givaudan will “continue to pursue all potential avenues for cranberry when it comes to supporting health applications,” Souza states.
Menopause Steps Out of the Shadow
Menopause was once considered a topic not discussed in polite company, but according to Evolva’s Blanc, this is no longer the case. In fact, her company has seen a huge number of new product developments including resveratrol with this positioning in the last 18 months. According to Blanc, “This reflects the fact that this topic is becoming less and less a taboo subject.” As to why, she points to the increasing number of female public figures speaking out in the media about menopause, including its symptoms and health risks and the various ways they sought help.
Evolva can easily speak to menopause. The company funded what it says is the largest and longest clinical trial of its kind, designed to investigate the impact of supplementing with Veri-te, its proprietary resveratrol ingredient, in postmenopausal women. Results of the study, says Da Silva Pinto, were published in peer-reviewed journals and reported in four separate articles. “The latest article of the series is related to the effects of Veri-te resveratrol supplementation on several parameters related to quality of life and wellbeing, such as pain perception, menopausal symptoms, mood, and sleep quality,” she adds.19
Among the other reported results, one of the study authors commented in a press release that “resveratrol supplementation can…improve menopause-related quality of life in postmenopausal women.”20
Famenity’s Hong believes that “unlike in the past, people have the time and money to invest in themselves” and improve their standard of living. With regards to the dietary supplement/functional food market, he says, “If the needs of middle-aged women can be understood based on scientific and statistically proven data, ingredients for improving women’s menopausal symptoms will have greater opportunities.”
When talking specifically about menopausal women, Hong says hot flashes or vaginal dryness are recognized as a major category of discomfort in sexual life. Also, he adds, in menopausal women, there is a growing interest in addressing fatigue and joint pain caused by lowered estrogen levels.
Famenity markets a branded women’s health ingredient for menopausal-aged women called MS-10. According to the company’s website, the ingredient enhances estrogen, reduces vaginal dryness and hot flashes, and improves skin texture and elasticity, among other things.21,22,23
Givaudan’s Souza agrees that healthy aging, and specifically menopause, are areas women are most interested in finding solutions for. “With aging populations around the world, we can expect to see steady growth [for this health-condition category],” he says.
Givaudan’s Lifenol, a unique hops extract, delivers important menopause support, says Souza. “We’ve recently expanded our clinical investigation into Lifenol with the aim of demonstrating that the ingredient has not only a positive impact on menopause symptoms but also on bone health in an aging female population,” he adds.
What’s on the Horizon for Women’s Health?
When it comes to staying on top of trends, Souza identifies two to look out for, based on what he’s hearing from customers and where the market is going. “More and more customers are asking how our ingredients impact the microbiome,” he says. Specifically, they want to know if the ingredients impact the microbiome in a way that can improve health.
The second trend Souza identifies is one that is continually recognized by the industry across all demographics and all product categories: “the convergence of food and dietary supplements,” he says.
“As consumers continue to seek convenient ways to manage their health,” says Souza, “to meet this demand, more and more health-focused products are being launched in food and beverage applications or formats.” Like others before him, he’s not shy about addressing the elephant in the room when it comes to delivering botanical solutions in food and beverage applications. That goal, he states, “is not without its challenges—not the least of which is taste.”
Gencor’s Hill urges the industry to “pay attention to the rise in delivery technologies that help lipophilic botanicals that are often restricted to capsules and tablets to be incorporated into more unique formats” such as water-dispersible powders, ready-to-drink beverages, gels, gummies, and more.
Evolva’s Blanc reminds the industry that it needs to consider that women want to have supplements designed for them, to meet their specific needs, while still recognizing that every woman is unique. “Because of this,” she says, “as each of them go through their lives, they’ll need a different approach to their health based on their individual requirements. They’ll also need dedicated communication tools and channels to support messaging that is not only focusing on health benefits but also including the emotional dimension that is associated with these.”
As herbals have been around for centuries, how do companies continue to innovate in this category? Draco’s Quirk advises that “we do searches for bioactives in herbs showing how they can modulate important physiological pathways and then try to use dosages and levels of actives that demonstrate good results in clinical studies. We find new ingredients mainly through literature searches of studies that show promising outcomes for specific applications.”
He shares that “in some cases, the ingredient had already been in the market for a while, but we were not aware of it until a customer requested it from us.”
Quirk identifies other concerns beyond stress, hair loss, menopause, and healthy aging that will likely increase as health concerns for women. “Dementia and cognitive decline is a vital area of importance for women’s health,” says Quirk, “due to the fact that women have a greater risk of developing [these issues] and generally have more severe outcomes. This could be due to the metabolic and hormonal changes that occur in menopause that uniquely increase this risk in women.”
“Similarly,” he says, “cardiovascular health can be a more urgent area of concern for women since first cardiac events are often more fatal in women than men.”
The big question is what role will natural products continue to play in women’s health moving forward? Those companies investing in science and evaluating the pros and cons of the regulatory framework for the industry will likely lead the way.