With efforts on at improving foods targeted at improving women's health researchers are facing a major challenge: A significant shortage of research reliant upon women's participation in food trials and studies.
Food scientists responsible for creating new functional foods addressed this lack of available women's research at this week's Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting + FOOD EXPO®, the world's largest annual meeting on food science, business and product development.
Substantiating health claims in the fast growing field of functional foods involving soy and omega-3 fatty acids, for example, is a major hurdle they said.
"It is impossible to predict and extrapolate information in studies using men that are aimed at women," said Bernadene Magnuson, a food toxicologist.
Until recently, she said, "there was a general belief that men and women didn't differ much in responses," to the way their bodies absorb food's nutrients and fight disease.
But a woman's body introduces numerous variables into research trials and results, scientists said. For example, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, lactation and menopause can all change the outcome of food studies specifically targeting women's needs. Women metabolize food and drugs at
different rates than men, and suffer from heart disease at a higher rate.
"One size does not fit all," said Dr. Ioana Carabin of the Women's Health Sciences Institute. She pointed out that women are the world's largest consumer group and focus on their personal health starting in their mid-20s and then throughout their lives.
The invitation to women to join medical studies has gone out loud and clear. Since the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health has required women to be
a part of studies in order for scientists to gain funding.
"We're in the upswing," Magnuson said, "but now the challenge is recruiting women."
The Society for Women's Health Research revealed why women choose not to take part in medical research. Sixteen percent say they're "just not interested," while nine percent claim that they "didn't believe in the
study." Another 16 percent say the study is "too risky." Other reasons included lack of time and the study's lack of relevance to their lives.
For useful research to proceed, "women have to be proactive in advancing the understanding of women's health," Magnuson said.
Getting clear scientific information to women so that "they want to listen to it" is also important, said nutritionist Susan Berkow.
"How do we send them to appropriate information like government Web sites instead of Glamour magazine or the New York Times?"
Now in its 66th year, IFT Annual Meeting + FOOD EXPO® is the world's single largest annual scientific meeting and technical exposition of its kind. The convention runs through Wednesday.
Founded in 1939, and with world headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, USA, the Institute of Food Technologists is a not-for-profit international scientific society with 22,000 members working in food science, technology and related
professions in industry, academia and government. As the society for food science and technology, IFT brings sound science to the public discussion of food issues.