Marketing food products is highly competitive, and every company is looking for an edge. Increasingly, companies are finding that edge by offering what's being called "gendered food."
In a TV ad for Quaker oatmeal, the campaign was clearly aimed at women, promoting the fact that the product has added vitamins and minerals such as folic acid and calcium. It's just one of many products on store shelves these days directed at one sex.
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A recent entry into the Canadian market is from Stonemill Bakehouse. It's a Toronto-based bakery that sells its products in several provinces. It released "his and her" breads last month.
The men's bread comes in dark green packaging and is high in protein and fibre, while the women's bread comes in pink packaging and is high in calcium and vitamin D.
Within days of the product release, the company's marketing effort was lambasted by experts and consumers as condescending and flat-out stupid.
A headline in the Hamilton Spectator read a sarcastic, "Decisions decisions … thank goodness for his and her bread!" The Huffington Post called it "the bread product you didn't know was necessary."
Marni Wasserman, a culinary nutritionist, says "his and her" foods are on the rise. And despite the backlash, companies may be putting them out there with good intentions.
"From a company perspective, it could be something that they're actually trying to educate the public on … but the response doesn't always land that way because people always are fearful of being sold something or sold the wrong thing," she said.
Wasserman has been keeping her eye on the gendered food market. She says a particular trend she's seeing involves foods such as protein bars and cereals separating the sexes based on nutritional needs.
"Typically, calcium is marketed towards women; it could be fibre as well for women. Men, it tends to be more iron and protein and maybe sometimes the omegas, but omegas can go either way," she said.
"So don't get me wrong — there are some nutrients that women do need or men do need separately from each other. But I'm cautious as to how people should be looking at these products."
Wasserman's biggest concern is that people will look at these products as a type of multivitamin and may consider them an exclusive source of one or two needed nutrients.
"They can't necessarily say at the end of the day, 'Great, I got my calcium for the day,' because it's going to often be a very processed, stripped-down or synthetic or even fortified version of that nutrient, and not necessarily the whole food," she said.
Wasserman added that it's much more important to look at the list of ingredients instead of the percentage daily value you see on the nutrition label. For instance, if you want calcium in a protein bar, she said it should come from a source such as whole almonds rather than something processed.
Wasserman has been keeping an eye on the response to Stonemill Bakehouse's gendered breads because she said it could be a pivotal moment in the Canadian food industry.
The immediate, and largely negative, response may be a cautionary tale to other companies looking to release gendered food in Canada. Whether it actually has a ripple effect on companies such as Quaker remains to be seen.