Nutrition's Effect on Menopause

Today, more than a third of the contemporary woman's life is in menopausal and post-menopausal phases. Not surprisingly, more functional foods are addressing major needs of women.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D. and Mark Messina, Ph.D.

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Menopause is often accompanied by symptoms including hot flashes, fatigue and mood swings. With the onset of menopause estrogen levels drop and the metabolic rate decreases. This leads to greater risk of weight gain and elevated blood cholesterol.

Glucose metabolism changes, increasing diabetes risk. These, in turn, increase risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Decreased bone density increases the risk of osteoporosis.

Peri- and post-menopausal women constitute one of the nation's largest demographics. Helping alleviate the symptoms and risks associated with menopause provides opportunities for food and beverage companies.

The opportunity is particularly huge considering that over half of the population is female, more than 1.5 million of whom enter the menopause phase each year. "When it comes to bone health, an estimated 42 percent of U.S. consumers eat foods specifically with osteoporosis prevention or relief in mind," says Maryellen Molyneaux of the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa.

Consumer education is the key to success for manufacturers. Branded ingredients are valuable for such marketing opportunities.

Bones of Contention

Bone loss is dramatic in women post-menopause. Yet calcium, the most important nutrient for bone health, is the most deficient in the diets of older women. Women who take calcium and vitamin D supplements have a lower risk of hip fracture.

To find out more about calcium, and how processors boosting foods and beverages with the vital mineral, check out "Calcium and Vitamin D Duet," Wellness Foods, April 2006.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends women past their child bearing years get 1,200 mg calcium, and 400 to 600 IUs of vitamin D daily, from diet as much as possible.

Many factors are critical for calcium absorption and effectiveness. Beverages fortified with calcium, such as orange juices or dairy beverages, help, but the body can only absorb about 500 mg of calcium at a time. Too much calcium at once also leads to potential gastrointestinal distress. This leaves plenty of room for manufacturers to add calcium to foods and beverages enjoyed throughout the day.

Marketers also have the opportunity to educate consumers about such foods and the value of distributing calcium intake over a 24-hour period.

Calcium's Little Helpers

Vitamin D, zinc, and potassium help balance calcium. Also, certain phytochemicals and prebiotic fibers, such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS), can contribute to calcium's ability to strengthen bones.

General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, is incorporating vitamin D and plant sterols that help the body absorb the calcium into its Yoplait Healthy Heart yogurt. Yoplait is the only leading brand of adult yogurt fortified with vitamin D.

FOS also can partially replace sugar and fat in some formulations. Lifeway Foods Inc., Morton Grove, Ill., adds FOS to its yogurt-like kefir beverage.

Marketed as a "super bone-health" product, it's low in fat and high in protein. It also contains 10 live and active probiotic cultures to enhance digestibility of milk and improve intestinal flora.

Lifeway recently introduced a non-dairy version of kefir called Soy Treat. Soy Treat is formulated to counter the naturally occurring oxalic acid in soybeans which interferes with calcium absorption.

Inulin, another plant fiber, also boosts calcium absorption. Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. manufactures Oliggo-Fiber, an instant inulin from chicory, which can increase calcium uptake. Cargill's instantizing process makes the inulin easier to incorporate in beverages and smoothies.

Orafti Active Food Ingredients, Malvern, Pa., uses proprietary technology to tailor chain lengths and distribution of oligofructose-enriched inulin compositions. Orafti's Beneo Synergy 1 line of inulins allows for selective fermentation in the lower gut and produces short-chain fatty acids that increase acidity in the colon, thus increasing calcium solubility and improving absorption into the body.

Beans for Bones - and Other Concerns

For decades, soy has received attention for its role as a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy. Soy is a nutrient-dense, protein- and fiber-rich food. It is also the only nutritionally relevant source of isoflavones, a group of dietary phytoestrogens investigated for their capacity to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and alleviate hot flashes associated with menopause.

Wellness Foods - Bone Health article - edamame
Thanks to publicity on the benefits of soyfoods, edamame (aka soybeans) have become more widely marketed in the U.S., in fresh, frozen and dried forms. Photo courtesy of Seapoint Farms.

As questions about the benefits and safety of hormone replacement therapy have been raised, more women are turning away from estrogen looking for an effective alternative. Although findings from clinical trials involving soy foods and isoflavones as total replacements for hormone therapy have not lived up to their initial promise, it turns out soy can do a great deal.

Studies in Asia show that women who consume high amounts of soy foods have stronger bones than women who consume relatively small amounts of soy. The only soy study to evaluate fractures found that, among Chinese postmenopausal women, soy intake was associated with a one-third reduction in risk.

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