The grocery store is embroiled in a sex war, and the stakes are high. General Mills and Quaker are among the increasing numbers of food manufactures waking up to the profits of wooing women, and according to the marketing gurus, catering for her indoors is an essential survival tactic in today’s retail sector. With woman-friendly nutrients galore and no small amount of pink packaging, Clare Harman takes a look at the trend of female foodstuffs.

The grocery store is embroiled in a sex war; a nutrient-orientated struggle in which supermarket shelves are the battlefield and gender-tailored fare the ammunition. The guerrilla tactics of breakfast bar behemoths include painting packets pink and adding feminine silhouettes to labels. Cereals fortified with female-specific vitamins are abounding and the plethora of fem-foodstuffs begs the question: is it all getting a little over the top?

Food manufacturers argue their goal is simple: to help time-pressed women who aren’t meeting their recommended dietary allowances (RDA) of nutrients. Over the course of the last year, several of the major players in the food industry have woken up to the sales potential represented by the need of many female shoppers to make a few nutritional tweaks to their diets. Many women are also concerned with calorie intake and, in particular, reducing the number of calories consumed on a daily basis – a market that offers plenty more sales potential for manufacturers.

Women’s health standards based on male profile

Back in 1994, natural-foods manufacturer Odwalla launched a line of iron-, calcium-, folic acid- and magnesium-enriched drinks, making the company a pioneer in the field of female-specific nutrition. Femme Vitale was marketed as a “powerful potion of cranberry, orange, raspberry and passion fruit juices”, promising to “tone and replenish the female system”. While catering for the weight-watcher with “B-complex vitamins including vitamins B1, B2, B6, and B12, which help facilitate the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins”, the drink also appeals to a spiritual side with its “time honoured herbs vitex, nettles and dong quai – which is often prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine”.

But why did Odwalla think the product was necessary? Until recently,” Odwalla’s Elizabeth McDonough told, “the specific nutritional needs of women have been largely ignored. In fact, for many years, women’s health standards were based on a man’s profile.”

McDonough explained that Odwalla therefore formulated Femme Vitale “to honour the unique nutritional needs of women […] especially after periods of stress, exertion and cyclic depletion”. She explained while Femme Vital is a popular product in the US, there are no plans to roll out in any other markets yet; perhaps because, as McDonough admits, “it primarily only appeals to about half of our consumer base!”

A fem-foods explosion

In 1996, a US Department of Agriculture

Company Profile:

The Quaker Oats Company

survey paved the way for an explosion of “fem-foods” with the discovery that more than 50% of women over the age of twenty were not consuming the RDA of six essential nutrients: folic acid, calcium, iron and vitamins B6, A and E. While some nutrients have traditionally been associated with female needs (folic acid is proven to help prevent birth defects and more recently, soy aficionados have explained that it can protect against breast cancer), statistics such as these widened the nutritional scope of fem-foods, which are now fortified with all the essential nutrients. Of course, it is possible to garner these nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – but maybe a gendered cereal is easier?

Last November, Quaker Oats revealed its solution to the problem: “a delicious hot cereal that brings together the hearty, wholesome goodness of oats with a unique combination of nutrients designed to meet a woman’s special needs at various phases of her life.” Quaker Oatmeal Nutrition for Women was rolled out in the northeastern US promising added calcium, iron, folic acid and B vitamins. The name says it all, but just to make sure women shoppers make a beeline for the packet, its label is lavender and it comes in a choice of two allegedly feminine flavours, vanilla cinnamon and golden brown sugar.

The top selling nutrition bar in natural food stores meanwhile is Luna, a snack bar produced by Cliff and Luna Stores and packed with female-friendly ingredients. It is also relatively new having only been introduced to the US market in 1999.

Infant formula maker Mead Johnson also developed the Viactiv line of female-orientated nutritional supplements. The line has developed significantly after the company released chocolate-flavoured calcium chews to US women in 1999, and Canadian women in 2000, to immediate success. The chews, which contain only 20 calories each and are now also available in orange cream, mochaccino and caramel flavours, were rated among the Business Week magazine’s “Best New Products of the Year”.

In July, Mead Johnson sold Viactiv to Fort Washington, PA-based McNeil Nutritionals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, for an undisclosed sum. Michael Sneed, president of McNeil, welcomed the acquisition: “The Viactiv brand not only gives us an established entry in the US$500m calcium supplement category, it is also a strong brand name for new nutritional products for women.” The line now includes energy bars, fruit smoothies and “energy spritzers”.

“Just for me”

Elsewhere, cereals giant General Mills now offers Harmony to women seeking “a low-fat, nutritional cereal”, and who feel they are not already getting enough calcium, antioxidants, soy, iron and folic acid. Upon closer nutritional examination, Harmony will not do more for the consumer physically than, say, a portion of a similar General Mills fortified cereal, Total, but it arguably has a greater emotional appeal.

General Mills

Company Profile:

General Mills Inc

has explained that the company created the cereal after extensive focus group research determined a gap in the market for a female-specific cereal. The marketing department told us that what women really want is a “just for me” moment and the company has done its best to offer that with a cereal whose packet parades pictures of contented happy women.

There’s the rub. Yes, women clearly have slightly different nutritional needs to men; it’s not a surprising fact, even if it makes us wonder how women got by without separate food products to men for so long. What’s interesting, however, is that recently food products marketed to US women promise more than physical health; they also tout spiritual well being. Products marketed specifically at women’s physical requirements aren’t new, but this catering for self indulgence through day-to-day products is.

It has long been tacitly understood that products such as chocolate and ice cream are more tempting to women than men; only it hasn’t been politically acceptable to talk about the difference between the sexes in terms of culinary preferences. For the marketer to play on female weakness in the face of a chocolate bar ran the risk of causing offence, in the same way that many men have learned under no circumstances to refer to a woman’s mood as down to the time of the month!

Over the course of the last year, however, manufacturers have defied such convention by staring the culinary gender gap straight in the eye. “Eat me!” implore the various nutrient-enriched foodstuffs, “and I’ll make you feel good emotionally about yourself.” It’s the L’Oreal syndrome: Go on, “because you’re worth it!” Food products can cater for specific dietary needs, but they can also make women feel emotionally good.


Acknowledging this openly heralds a cultural and social shift, and it’s also a dream come true for marketers, who will know that women make 80% of the food purchasing decisions in US households. And according to New York-based ‘consumer Trend expert and marketing futurist’ Faith Popcorn’s latest book, published in April 2000, the shift is an “EVEolution” during which companies will find it essential to court the female consumer.

If this trend continues, and it looks almost certain to, women could soon find themselves with the ultimate in female pampering: their own aisle in the supermarket. The turf war will be won and all that will be left is for women to celebrate the victory with a banquet (consisting of vitamin drinks, nutrition bars and calcium-enriched chocolate chews, of course).

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Targeting the Single Female Consumer

Trends in Food Shopping 2001

Trends in Food Shopping 2001 (download)

Convenience Shopping: Future Store Formats and Product Innovations