As the vitamin industry goes ever further to sell tablets to Australians with every opportunity to get what they need from fresh food, gendered vitamins are multiplying.
Women, no matter what their life stage, are sold the idea they need the latest, female-focused blend or combination of supplements as a daily staple; lest they feel more tired, anxious, stressed or run-down than they need (and their hair goes dull without some Kylie Jenner-endorsed vitamin-lolly).
Gendered vitamins are playing to the idea women have greater nutritional needs than men, which is false.
Whole shelves of "women's" general health vitamins, and the advent of whole ranges of "beauty-boosting" supplements are claiming significant chunks of disposable income – and creating a torrent of mighty expensive, additive-laden pee. But apart from medically prescribed supplements for deficiencies (such as calcium for bone health in older women, vitamin D, or folate for women planning pregnancies) is there any basis to buy into the gendered-vitamin hype?
Associate Professor Louis Roller, at Monash University's department of pharmacy practice, “sniggers” when he sees vitamins specifically marketed by gender: “It’s absolute crap," he says.
“Yes, vitamins are absolutely essential, but any sort of reasonable diet will have all the vitamins you need.”
Marketing, rather than the identification of a medical need, has played a huge part in the growth of the vitamin supplement industry, with endorsements from celebrity ambassadors, starlets or sports stars driving the perception that vitamin supplements are conducive to health (and helped promote their glow).
“People are incredibly susceptible to celebrities; we live in a celebrity society,” says Associate Professor Roller; we're trained to want what they're having.
“They know how to target people, and they know that women in particular care about hair and nails etc, so they promote this … and it’s very successful."
Social media platforms such as Instagram have also opened opportunities for companies to reach a more targeted audience.
Kylie Jenner, for example, garnered nearly 1.5 million “likes” on an Instagram post endorsing Sugar Bear Hair vitamins, which she wrote “make my natural hair look and feel amazing”. These are vitamin supplements that come in the form of flavoured sugar bear lollies.
Nutrition scientist Dr Tim Crowe, who has been studying vitamin supplements for years, said the industry has figured out ways in which to increasingly segment their offerings, despite the fact “there are no new vitamins coming into the market: we know them all".
"Companies are putting together different formulations in order to target a particular group of people, according to age, lifestyle, life stages and, of course, gender.”
Dr Crowe, a former academic within the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University, says though more gendered vitamins are marketed at women, “for most vitamins, women need less than men.”
"The explanation for this is easy: women are smaller than men. It's like a child needs less vitamins than an adult – size has a lot to do with it."
Celebrities are also creating their own vitamin supplement ranges, with beauty queen Bobbi Brown recently launching a new line of supplements and protein powders called Evolution 18; and Australian model Miranda Kerr’s Kora organics body range incorporating “skin supplements” that include a blend of “organic Noni Extract, Acai, Blueberry and Matcha Green Tea, to name a few”.
Three-quarters of Australians, including 92 per cent of women aged 20-24, take at least one dietary supplement.
The desire to maintain a healthy lifestyle is so strong, that striving for it is has recently emerged as one of the key causes of stress for Australians, according to the Australian Psychological Society Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey 2015.
While Dr Crowe and Associate Professor Roller agree that, with some notable exceptions, vitamin supplements usually do nothing (Vitamin C supplements, for example, do not reduce the incidence and intensity of colds), some studies have shown a small increase in mortality in the vitamins group.
So what do experts such as Dr Crowe endorse for use by women?
Folic acid/ folate (B9)
Both Dr Crowe and Professor Roller say that folate (B9) should be taken by women planning to get pregnant.
“Folate is substantially supported by science, and it is recommended women take it before the planned conception and several months after as well. This is to cover the early fertilisation and conception period,” Dr Crowe said.
Folate/ folic acid can prevent ultimate spina bifida in the newborn, a birth defect where there is an incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord.
Women of reproductive age are also encouraged to ensure they have enough iron, as iron is lost during monthly periods. Pregnant women also need adequate iron during pregnancy to supply enough blood for their growing babies.
According to the US Department of Health and Services, many women, especially pregnant women, do not get enough iron from food alone. This can put them at risk for iron-deficiency anaemia.
According to Associate Professor Roller, vitamin D has been most extensively studied. It has been found to have many beneficial effects, including preventing and treating osteoporosis in susceptible individuals. However, “no-one really knows what the right level of vitamin D is,” he said.
Vitamin B12 helps the body make red blood cells, and helps neurons work better. Some women, especially those who are pregnant, vegetarian or aged 50 and older, may not get enough B12, and are encouraged to consume a supplement on doctor's recommendation or to up their intake of foods that contain it.
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