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Misunderstanding and misogyny fuelling marketing ‘menowashing’

Article-Misunderstanding and misogyny fuelling marketing ‘menowashing’

© iStock/ADragan Misunderstanding and misogyny fuelling marketing ‘menowashing’
Women in search of menopause solutions are being exploited via a marketing practice known as “menowashing”. How can industry better serve this consumer group?

Mention menopause to most people and what comes to mind is the plethora of related symptoms – brain fog, anxiety, weight gain, low libido, joint pain, and memory loss, to name a few. 

And little wonder: more than half of women experiencing menopause find the symptoms distressing, with as many as one in 10 going so far as to leave her job.

Dr Louise Newson, leading menopause specialist and founder of the Newson Health Menopause and Wellbeing Centre, should know; she was one of them.

She told Vitafoods Insights: “When I had symptoms seven years ago, I would have done anything to have kept my job, to [have] kept my husband, to keep functioning. And so I can see why women are like, ‘Oh my God, give me anything.’”

Even within the realm of women’s health, consumers tend to spend more on menopause: a 2023 McKinsey survey of US consumers found that while the highest percentage of respondents purchased menstrual care products, menopause products attracted the biggest spend.

Menowashing: HRT scepticism drives massive market for alternative approaches

This huge consumer interest, combined with a lack of education among the medical profession and a legacy of scepticism around hormone replacement therapy (HRT), has created a massive market for alternative approaches – and a space where unscrupulous operators can target a captive audience.

Enter menowashing. The phenomenon was described in blunt terms by Dr Sarah Berry, chief scientist at ZOE, during a ZOE Science and Nutrition podcast episode: “Stick the word ‘meno’ in front of the product, whether it be a food supplement or a skin cream, and you can double the price and sell more.”

Newson, who has refused to work with major brands because of their position on this, gave examples including skin cream, shampoos, and “menopause chocolate. It's just chocolate with almonds in it. Why the hell do we have to have special chocolate because we're menopausal?”

Consumers are becoming wise to these cynical marketing ploys, she argued.

“It's so degrading for women, thinking we put a cream on our face and just because it's labelled ‘menopause’, it's going to help all our other symptoms – and then you look at market research, [and it says that] when it was given to 24 women, 80% said their skin felt better… [P]eople can see through it,” she said.

A lack of education isn’t the only driver; sexism has a part to play, too.

“There's a lot of medical gaslighting, there's a lot of misogyny – but there's also a lot of misunderstanding as to what the menopause is, and then very sadly, there's very few people who have the menopause as an academic interest,” Newson added.

A naturalness bias among consumers is another factor inhibiting progress, she argued.

“[These products] will be marketed as natural and so people go, ‘Oh, they're safe, that's natural.” Whereas anything I prescribe isn't natural. Well, that's absolute rubbish,” she said.

Menowashing fails to address long-term health effects of menopause

While the pursuit of symptom relief is big money – the global menopause market was estimated at $16.93 billion in 2023 – even more concerning, according to Newson, is the lack of attention paid to its long-term health implications.

She is a migraine sufferer – “so I take a good-quality magnesium, I take fish oil, I take a probiotic, I take vitamin D. But I take those for my future health – I don't take them for my menopause per se”.

Future health is a major focus of her work, which is currently looking at the health risks associated with hormone deficiencies, a major factor in diseases like osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.

“Without our hormones, we're more at risk of heart disease as well. So why are we not treating [menopause] to reduce risk of heart disease? she asked.

Additionally, she said, the role of hormones in inflammation and brain health is “really, really crucial”, while looking at the mental health aspect “is huge as well”.

Education and empowerment are key to her mission. Newson said:I don't really care if women spend $120 billion or whatever they're spending, as long as they know what they're taking has no evidence, and it's not going to help their long-term health, and it's just a marketing ploy… But the problem is they don't.

She described the beautiful packaging used by some brands, adding: “It's all lovely, but is it really helping my future health? It might help… the way having a chat with a friend is helpful in the short term. But is it really addressing what the menopause is?

© iStock/JackFMisunderstanding and misogyny fuelling marketing ‘menowashing’

Ultimately, she said, it came down to empowering people to make informed choices.

“Whether women have symptoms or not, they have to know about the health risks,” she said.

Supplement brands ‘missing out’ on opportunity to make an impact

What can brands do to steer clear of menowashing? Future health is an area where they could help drive genuine innovation, argued Newson, who highlighted how collaborative research was a major area where industry could make a meaningful impact.

“Some of these companies could work with us in a really amazing way,she said.

She described a meeting where the focus of discussion was the anti-inflammatory supplement nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) – “which is really interesting, because I'm interested in mitochondrial function and oxidative stress – in which she asked about the possibility of running a study exploring the advantages of giving NAD in addition to HRT, rather than instead of it.

“We probably could amplify the effects of hormones if we were on the right supplements – but they're marketed as an alternative to HRT,” she said.

Even among established ingredients, the choice of which supplement to take was crucial, Newson added.

“Because I'm a migraine sufferer, if I don't take magnesium a few days, I know my migraines will come up again – but I take a really good-quality magnesium with vitamin B6. It helps the absorption of magnesium,” she said, adding: “People need to know, so they can make a choice – because a lot of people spend a lot of money on this.”

She explained: “You can give this cupboard full of these pseudo-scientific supplements – and they might help; it's really hard to do placebo-controlled, randomised controlled studies on these products.”

The problem was, she said, that menopause research “is underfunded, underserved. It's a massive need [but] there's not big funding. And so it's a chicken and egg thing.”

Besides the clear need, there is an economic imperative for brands to better serve this fast-growing demographic, Newson argued.

“I think there [are] some companies, some [in] the industry, that could work with us really well, rather than trying to be against us… I think they're missing a trick, really, because in time to come… they're going to fall on their face,” she said.