A Food Of One's Own

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First there was a nutrition bar called Luna--decorated with silhouetted dancing girls and packed with ingredients that women are supposed to need--which since it was introduced in 1999 has become the top-selling bar in natural-food stores. Then there was the line of breakfast cereals from Zoe Foods, launched in Massachusetts last year by a woman who wanted to make granola for women like her menopausal mom. In January, General Mills climbed on board, introducing Harmony cereal with soy protein, folic acid and a vanilla-almond-oat flavor that rated high in female focus groups. And this fall Quaker will roll out its Nutrition for Women oatmeal, which features extra calcium and iron and a feminized lavender backdrop behind the trademark white-haired Quaker man.

If this keeps up, food targeted to women may need its own aisle in the supermarket, alongside dairy, paper products and pet supplies. Clearly, some female shoppers respond to food designed with their nutritional needs in mind. But do they really need to buy special oatmeal just because they were born with an extra X chromosome instead of a Y? "Somehow as a gender we've done fine for thousands of years without our own breakfast cereal," says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

What the new fem foods have in common is that they all trumpet nutrients that benefit women in particular, from the tried and true, such as calcium for preventing osteoporosis and folic acid for staving off birth defects, to sexy newcomers like soy, which is popularly believed to fight breast cancer and relieve the symptoms of menopause, though this is still unproved.

Manufacturers are clearly trying to appeal as much to women's emotional needs as their dietary ones, tapping into what is presumed to be a deep-seated desire to have a food of one's own. "Harmony gives women a 'just for me' moment," claims Megan Nightingale, an assistant marketing manager at General Mills.

If Oprah were a cereal, she would be Harmony. The front of the box pictures a triumphant female figure with her arms raised; on the back is a serene photo of a woman on a beach. As part of its publicity blitz, Harmony this month is funding an exhibit at the Women's Museum in Dallas. It features a "wisdom wall" with quotes from feminist icons like Cokie Roberts and Geraldine Ferraro. It's hard to believe the minds who brought us Budweiser's "Whassup?" ads never thought of doing something like that for the guys.

But before women toss out their Wheaties boxes like so many charred bras, they should be aware that these products are designed by marketers who are keenly aware that women make 80% of the food-shopping decisions in American households. The scant 2 gm of soy in each serving of Harmony probably isn't enough to do anything but make a woman feel virtuous for the morning, says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And nutrition bars, while better for you than a Snickers, aren't as good as eating an actual meal with fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

As Liebman puts it, "Fortified junk food is still junk food." Most women can get the nutrients they need just as well, and much more cheaply, from a daily multivitamin as from a 170-cal. nutrition bar that costs $1.50.

The new products are not wholly without value, however. Women have different nutritional needs from men, requiring more iron, for example, and fewer calories. Nine out of 10 women don't get their recommended daily allowance of calcium, and 70% don't get enough iron. While women are clearly better off munching leafy greens or low-fat yogurt than relying on fortified foods, it's also clear that many of them aren't doing it. If a bowl of fortified oatmeal in the morning gets them going, nutritionists say, it's better than nothing.

It was partly the desire to fill in the gaps in her diet and partly the eye-catching package that led Amy Hoerler, 29, of Brooklyn, to toss a box of Harmony cereal into her cart last month. Hoerler, who takes a women's multivitamin and a calcium chew, still feels she doesn't eat as healthfully as she should. "But there's a feeling," she says, "that if you eat a cereal like this in the morning, it balances out the Taco Bell you eat for dinner."

That logic makes nutritionists nervous. "We don't want women to think one cereal or one bar is the magic bullet for women's health," says Lichtenstein. "Eating healthy, for women and men, is a lifelong commitment."

And what about the men? Are the guys jealous of all the attention being showered on the gals? Will they demand a Tony-the-Tiger benefit for prostate cancer or start raiding their wives' stash of Luna bars? Hoerler's boyfriend has so far steered clear of her Harmony cereal. "Oh, God," she says. "It's healthy. It's girlie. He wants nothing to do with it."