NutraViews: Research on Women Presents Opportunity to “Shape and Change the World”

WholeFoods Magazine and Nutrasource have kicked off a 4-part webinar series titled NutraViews, covering women’s issues across the natural products industry—starting off with Lack of Female Representation in Research, covering precisely what the title implies.

Why is this a major issue? Maggie Jaqua, Content Director for WholeFoods Magazine, gave some data to contextualize the importance of this webinar: “Science shows that women are under-represented in research, both in terms of participation in trials, and in terms of conducting the research, and being on the publishing side of those studies. I want to start with just an example that helps illustrate this problem, and shows how severe the consequences can be: Looking at the heart health category, research highlighted in the February 2020 issue of Circulation included an analysis of data from clinicaltrials.gov, and it revealed that women represented just 38% of people enrolled in heart disease and stroke clinical research. And the review on the number of women who study and treat heart disease and stroke—and publishing the research—also shows that the gender gap in academia is wide. And in the case of heart disease, which we know is a top killer of women, the American Heart Association suggests that this lack of knowledge specific to women could be a contributing factor in disparities in symptom recognition, treatment times, and lifesaving support. Another study found that women are less likely to survive a heart attack, particularly when treated by a male doctor.”

Looking at our industry specifically, Sue Hewlings, Ph.D., RD, Director of Scientific Affairs, Nutrasource/GRAS Associates, told Jaqua: “I think it mirrors what you were highlighting, in medical research and in health research in general. Especially health issues specific to women seem to be particularly underfunded. Everything is interconnected, and it makes sense, then, that our industry would reflect the same statistics, in that there is a definite gap in women being studied in all areas, whether we’re studying sports nutrition or sleep, there is a gender gap. And to add to that, we have a tendency to take what has been applied to men, and say, ‘well, women are just small men,’ and also to do that with the marketing! A lot of women in the industry have talked about that, how a product gets a pink bow on it, even though it hasn’t been studied in women. And that then trickles into the adverse events, and on and on.”

Zeroing in further on sports nutrition, Trisha VanDusseldorp, B.S., M.S., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Exercise Science and B.S. Exercise Science Program Director at Kennesaw State University, noted: “Only about 20-25% of sports nutrition investigations include females as their subject population, just focused on females. And even looking at data that have investigations of just one female participant in a sports nutrition study—it only goes up to about 30%.”

Why? VanDusseldorp explained: “One of the biggest things we often run into is—you’re designing a study and you want to control for as many variables as possible, so hormones tend to be the biggest factor for us when it comes to female research. And with that comes birth control, and lots of different types of birth control, and understanding that throughout the menstrual cycle that metabolism changes, so that we might have females who are metabolizing carbohydrates faster than others, or fats. The other aspect is that if you look at supplement research, women might respond stronger to a given supplement during a different phase of the menstrual cycle.”

William Rowe, B.A., President, CEO, and Co-Founder of Nutrasource, shared a business perspective of this issue: “There’s a high attrition rate in this population, because you have to control for the menstrual cycle. And when participants show up to the clinic—you only have a small window every so often to bring that participant in. If you miss that window, you have to wait another 30 days. That turns into a longer timeframe, more cost, high attrition rate, so a lot of the sponsors are simply about speed, and getting things done as quickly as possible, to file things like intellectual property, claim substantiation, to get to market as quickly as possible.”

Besides caring about women’s health, there’s a huge opportunity for market payoff, according to Karen Howard, B.A., CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association. “It’s very clear, this is data that we’ve had for a long time: Women are the managers of healthcare in their households. They are in charge of meals, vitamins, supplements. They carry generational knowledge in that role, and they carry it back to the generations that are depending on them. All that said, they are very seldom actually looked at, in critical science and outcomes. Probiotics in women are going to be different from probiotics in men, it’s just going to be the case. So we have overlooked the most obvious component of the market. And if we have to make change based on high motivators, then I think a revenue piece of that is an easy one to document. Because obviously, the more success these people have when they go into the marketplace and buy products, the more likely they are to come back. And if we continue to generate a marketplace of generic products for all Americans, much less looking at women or people of color, and all the dynamics that go through all of those economic, societal, and cultural values, we will miss our opportunity to actually start to shape and change the world.”

Interested? Consider the following questions:

  • How can the menstrual cycle be an advantage in research—and, more than that, how can it be used to improve women’s health?
  • How does having women involved in study design affect the gender balance of the study?
  • What is the industry doing to support entry of minorities into research fields?
  • How is our industry doing in terms of gender equality, in general?
  • How can workplace diversity help grow a business?
  • What can women do to help themselves get into these fields—and get ahead in them?
  • How can male leaders increase diversity and women’s comfort in the workplace?

For the answers to these questions and more, view the full session, which is on-demand, for free, here. And keep an eye on www.WholeFoodsMagazine.com, where news will be posted when the date for the next session is set.

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