Ministers are facing calls to explore making tampons and sanitary towels free in Scotland, amid fears that female health is being put at risk due to the financial cost of periods.

Women's groups backed demands for groundbreaking work to be carried out to assess barriers facing low income groups in accessing the essential products, after the health secretary sparked anger by suggesting those who struggled to afford them could find them in foodbanks.

Engender, the feminist charity, expressed concerns that women and girls were going without adequate protection due to cash pressures, potentially causing missed school days and risking significant health issues.

The calls came as a growing number of cities around the world embraced a policy of handing out free feminine hygiene products, with New York placing free dispensers in schools and homeless shelters in a move that is expected to benefit over 300,000 schoolgirls and vulnerable women. Sydney is considering adopting the plan, as a global "menstrual equity" movement gains momentum.

But while the SNP has campaigned against the 'tampon tax', which sees VAT charged on the products, the Scottish Government admitted it had done "no specific work" to assess costs of periods and has "no plans to introduce free access to feminine hygiene products." Shona Robison went on to say some foodbanks in Scotland handed out the products, a statement that was branded "astonishing" by opposition MSPs.

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender, said: "Menstrual hygiene products are not cheap. With some families in Scotland forced to choose between heating and eating, we would be very surprised if women and girls were not also going without adequate sanitary protection. The demand for such products from foodbanks tells us that this is likely to be the case.

"International work tells us that an insufficiency of menstrual hygiene products can stop girls going to school, breaches the dignity and rights of female prisoners, and causes profound additional health challenges to homeless women. If a lack of menstrual hygiene products is a barrier to girls and women in Scotland, then we need to know about it, and then remove it."

A failure to change tampons regularly has been linked to toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. Campaign group Women for Independence said it had launched its own campaigns to place items in foodbanks and backed calls for new studies examining the extent of any problem and policy options.

Monica Lennon, the Scottish Labour inequalities spokeswoman who raised the issue with Ms Robison, said the cost of the items to women and girls is "clearly significant", with an estimated 12,000 used over a lifetime. She branded the Government's lack of work "disappointing" and plans to begin talks with women's groups around the issue.

She added: "If a household already has financial pressures then access to feminine hygiene products can be a problem. For the health minister to suggest that the solution to this is to ask foodbanks to provide them is astonishing.

"Lack of access to feminine hygiene products can lead to very serious health issues. It is not inconceivable that women and girls may not change products as regularly as they should due to the cost. I intend to press the Scottish Government to carry out an assessment of the cost of feminine hygiene products to women and girls."

Ms Robison said the Scottish Government had already invested to support people on low incomes and to tackle poverty. She added: "We are taking action in a range of areas, including investing in affordable housing, increasing childcare, demonstrating our commitment to a real Living Wage, and spending £100 million a year mitigating against the worst of UK Government welfare changes."