Forgive the sexist title but bear with me and it’ll make sense!
Gender-specific protein powders…Yep, they’re a thing.
Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why. They’re just, a thing. They’re a bit like spiders, I guess, in that they exist, but nobody knows why they exist and nobody is doing anything to stop them.
I’ll preface this post by saying that my aim here isn’t to call-out brands, and that I’m not here to start a slanging match. What I want to do is look critically at these products in terms of product design and marketing from a consumer perspective.
Last month I was in my local Holland and Barrett and I spotted a protein powder I’d not seen before. It was called Exercise Support from PhD Nutrition (a brand I regularly buy), and was part of the PhD Woman range. It’s selling point? It helps to “tone muscle”. In case you were wondering – a product cannot tone muscle.
I thought I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and looked at the ingredients, but couldn’t see anything that would make it suitable only for women or how it was different from any other protein powder, aside from having feminine colours on the packaging.
It got me wondering if any other brands were doing the same thing, so I went online to find out and discovered two more (in the UK, at least) – MyProtein Active Women Diet Blend, and MissFits Nutrition’s The Multitasker. Again after a scour of the ingredients list, it wasn’t clear why men shouldn’t buy them.
I decided to contact all three via email to find out exactly why these products were only for women, and that the best approach was to be upfront and tell them I was writing a blog post, and I’d like them to comment.
Here’s a quick summary of the responses:
PHD Nutrition – Exercise Support: Despite a number of tweets and and two emails to the customer support team, I received no response from them. Do you think possibly this product doesn’t tone your body? Their silence speaks volumes. The product plays on the fact it’s only 120 calories (because low calorie diets are great, right?!), and says that it “contains a tailored combination of vitamins and minerals that are specifically targeted to meet the unique needs of women”. That “tailored combination” in reality is more like they crushed up half a Berocca and mixed it in.
MyProtein – Active Women Diet Blend: The response I received from their help-desk was that the “vitamins and minerals used are more suited to females, for example Folic Acid”. Now, folic acid does of course hold certain health benefits for women, particularly around pregnancy, but it’s also beneficial for men too. One serving of this product is 51% of the recommended daily intake for folic acid, so if women were using this as their primary source of folic acid, they may need to supplement further. Prior to writing this post I did reach out on LinkedIn to get some comments. I was contacted by a MyProtein NPD (new product development) Technologist who offered to advise further, but didn’t follow up in the end.
MissFits Nutrition – The Multitasker – The lesser-known brand of the three, and not one I’ve seen before if I’m totally honest. The ingredients are basically the same as a regular protein powder – though this one is a pea-protein isolate rather than a whey/soy blend so is arguably a better source of protein. It then has added green tea extract and flaxseed powder. On the surface it’s not a bad product, but it’s the marketing and branding where it falls short. It claims that it “will not cause bulking”…because protein makes you do that, obviously. I was sent a press-release from one of their founders which stated the product was designed because existing brands were “focusing on men to bulk or women to lose weight through meal replacement.” I’m not quite sure what that’s based on as it’s really not the case at all.
It’s fair to say that it was a poor performance all round and none of these particular brands were able to justify why these products were significantly different to a regular protein powder.
The only thing that makes these gender-specific are the packaging and the way they are marketed – playing on the fact that regular protein powder could make you bulky, for example.
The take home message for any women reading this is that these products will not be of any significant benefit to you compared to a good quality whey (or pea / vegan) protein powder.
Brands are cashing in on a rapidly growing market. From a commercial perspective, I get it. But ethically, I can’t get my head around it. All they are doing is confusing an already muddled and crowded market place. The tactics they use to sell these products are underhand, but I can’t see anything changing in product development or marketing given how it’s a relatively unregulated market in the UK.
This isn’t exclusive to protein powders for women, though. There’s plenty of protein powders adverts with a ripped dude on the front to clearly target the male audience.
A point that’s worth raising is that this isn’t an industry-specific trait either. Not that I’ve looked in any detail, but I’m sure there’ll be things like beauty/grooming products which contain the same ingredients but are packaged and marketed differently to appear gender-specific.
While I really don’t agree that brands should be allowed to release and promote gender-specific / gender-targeted protein powders, it’s hard to completely lose my shit about it. I can see both sides of the argument when I switch on my business-brain.
At the end of the day, getting more women interested in health and looking at their diet is ultimately a good thing. And, while a protein powder isn’t what they should be reaching for in the first instance, the reality is that it’s the world we live in.