Nutrition's Effect on Menopause

June 5, 2006
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.

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.

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.

Although conclusions about skeletal benefits must be based on controlled clinical research, about 20 such trials have been conducted. Results have been mixed but are generally encouraging.

No definitive conclusions can be made until the findings from several large, long-term clinical trials currently under way are known. However, postmenopausal women concerned about bone health would be wise to incorporate soy into their diet. Both the protein and the isoflavones in soy may be beneficial. Women who drink soy milk should be certain to choose a type that is calcium-fortified.

Other Soy Benefits

Results from clinical trials on soy's ability to alleviate hot flashes have been inconsistent, but most trials show at least some benefit. Efficacy may vary according to how individual women metabolize the soybean isoflavones. Also, some evidence indicates women with frequent hot flashes have a better chance of benefiting from soy. Of all the soy isoflavones, genistein is the most likely to be effective.

Soy protein itself modestly lowers blood cholesterol levels. The isoflavones may also directly benefit the arteries, although this is still speculative. Worth noting are the findings from a large study in China involving 65,000 women. The researchers found consumers of high amounts of soy were nearly 90 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack.

Both the protein and isoflavones in soy foods may play an important role in a heart-healthy diet. Moreover, soy products are low in saturated fat, high in polyunsaturated fat and a source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Making Soy Work for You

How soy is consumed matters. Epidemiological findings that Asian women have only one-third to one-half of the breast cancer risk of their western counterparts, suggesting the protective effect of whole soy in foods.

"Springfield Creamery has long recognized some consumers seek nondairy alternatives to yogurt without compromising calcium intake," says Sheryl Thompson, co-owner of the company which makes Nancy's Organic Cultured Soy fortified with calcium. "This is especially true with women in the 40-plus age range. Nancy's Organic Cultured Soy is uniquely tailored for this demographic, being fortified with calcium, live beneficial bacteria, the powerful antioxidants vitamins C and E and soy Isoflavones."

Recent findings of the strong association between soy isoflavones and the growth of cancer cells in women support the inference that soy in its natural form is not as risky as concentrated isolates. This is important news for manufacturers. Soy flour and soy beans (edamame) are inexpensive, easy to incorporate into formulations and provide a number of health benefits to fortify the nutritional panel and the marketing message.

Still, no foods are magic bullets and savvy companies like Odwalla (, Half Moon Bay, Calif., for example, are careful about the health messages on soy milk. Such companies find success through relying on consumers to select their product for its taste and overall health virtues.

French Meadow Bakery offers Women's Bread, with significant amounts of soy isoflavones and Omega-3, -6 and-9 fatty acids.

While most soy foods naturally contain isoflavones, manufacturers must use concentrated forms for the physiological effects and FDA-permitted health claims. Soy isoflavones must also be bioavailable to be effective in preventing health issues.

To deliver functionality, it is critical to recognize food types and understand the factors that alter their bioavailability, according to Laurent Leduc, president of the North American Health Division at Acatris Inc., Minneapolis ( Acatris' SoyLife, a soy germ isoflavone, is ideal for inclusion in a wide variety of foods and beverages.

The Whole Bean

St. Louis-based Solae Co. has done a remarkable job educating consumers, especially women, to look for Solae-branded soy for superior health benefits in beverages and foods. Solae's "Protein in unexpected places" campaign can help processors capitalize on soy's nutritional reputation and the growing new better-for-you trend in the food business.

Cargill's AdvantaSoy - a line of high-concentration soy isoflavones for beverages, yogurt, shakes and bars - is a GRAS (generally regarded as safe) certified ingredient. Seattle-based Indena SpA, has a patented isoflavone called SoySelect. It contains highly bioavailable and bioactive genistein and daidzein for both bone health and reducing the severity of hot flashes.

Soy beans and soy flour are easy for manufacturers to add to foods. Specialty baker Lynn Gordon of Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery introduced Women's Bread with ingredients believed to naturally alleviate some of the symptoms of menopause, while promoting bone strength and heart health.

In the long run, soy foods represent excellent sources of protein, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. Evidence suggests two to three servings of soy foods per day is sufficient to provide benefits.

Several other naturally occurring phytonutrients play an important role in helping women prevent bone disintegration. For example, higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is associated with lower bone mass density at the hip. This implies the value of adding omega-3s from fish oil, tree nuts or flax seed in helping to prevent osteoporosis.

The host of beneficial nutritional compounds science is bringing to the forefront to maximize a woman's health and her hormones throughout her life is impressive. Manufacturers stand to gain long-term loyalty by helping female customers take charge of their health in every decade of their lives, and particularly from helping women enjoy optimal health in their senior years.


Trading on the oft-cited predilection the fairer gender has for all things chocolate, some companies are enhancing the treat with nutrients specifically targeting women's health issues.

Thompson Brand Inc., Meriden, Conn., recently introduced Adora chocolates (pictured at right). Marketed as a "calcium supplement," Adora combines premium, all-natural chocolate in milk or dark flavors with 500mg of a unique, elemental calcium formulation. It's suitable for vegetarians. The chocolates yield only 30 calories per disk and also contain vitamins D and K. As with vitamin D, vitamin K plays an important role in the body's ability to absorb and utilize calcium.
Meanwhile, Ecco Bella, Montclair, N.J., rolled out its Beautiful Bones Bar (shown at right). Certified organic and Fair Trade, Beautiful Bones Bars start with a base of Swiss dark chocolate laced with orange essence, then add calcium derived from sea algae (a source of other important trace minerals) and vitamins K, D2 and D3.

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