’s Health Beat

By: Mary Jane Dittmar
Fire Engineering

Health is as vital to firefighters/emergency responders’ well-being as safety. Just as you must do your part to ensure your safety on the fireground and not abandon all responsibility for your safety to the safety officer or incident commander, so, too, you must take the initiative in safeguarding your health. You should be “proactive” about protecting your total health-body, mind, and spirit.

Given the vast changes that have overtaken the health-care environment and the rapid pace at which research has been evolving, health-care consumers today must become involved. They must become knowledgeable in health options and informed partners with their doctors and other health-care providers.

This column will present for your information brief synopses of research studies and other health-related reports you can use as stepping stones to build your body of knowledge in health-enhancing strategies. Keep in mind that some research represents first findings and involves small test groups. The results of these tests serve as the basis for subsequent studies.

Surprisingly, the findings of a good number of studies can help us improve our health and overall well-being by making what have come to be known as “lifestyle” changes in everyday activities like eating, exercising, coping with life’s stresses, and following guidelines established to make us more healthy and keep us safe.

Information presented in this column is not to be construed as medical advice. Always consult with your physician before beginning an exercise program or taking supplements or any other substances, especially if you have been diagnosed with a medical condition or are taking medications.

Health Claims and Fruits and Vegetables

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in the interests of educating consumers and improving health, have authorized health claims manufacturers can use on food labels or dietary supplements. To be approved, the information in the health claim must be found to be factual and truthful, and an ample number of qualified experts in the scientific community must agree on the reliability of the information.

The health claim cites a product’s potential for protecting or improving health when consumed “as part of an overall healthy diet.” It shows a relationship between a nutrient or other substances in a food and a disease or health-related condition.

The FDA has authorized 13 health claims in all. Seven were authorized in 1993 as part of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). Six additional claims have been subsequently authorized.

Health Claim: “Fruits and vegetables and cancer”

It has been established that diets low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some cancers. (The roles of fiber, vitamin A (as beta-carotene), and vitamin C cannot be adequately distinguished from those of other fruit or vegetable components.)

The requirements established for this label, therefore, are the following: (1) The food must meet criteria for “low fat” and, without fortification, be a “good source” of fiber, vitamin A, or vitamin C. (2) The claim must present fruits and vegetables as foods that are low in fat and that may contain dietary fiber, vitamin A, or vitamin C. (3) The label must describe the food itself as a “good source” of one or more of these nutrients; the nutrients must be listed. 4. The label must not specify types of fatty acids but must use the words “total fat” or “fat,” “some types of cancer” or “some cancers,” and “fiber,” “dietary fiber,” or “total dietary fiber” in discussing the nutrient-disease link.

A sample claim for broccoli as a food that may have potential for fighting some types of cancer would be the following: “Low-fat diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some types of cancer, a disease associated with many factors. Broccoli is high in vitamins A and C, and it is a good source of dietary fiber.”

Companies that intend to use a new health claim based on an authoritative statement of one or more federal scientific bodies may notify the FDA of its intent, according to a provision in the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997. If the FDA does not act to prohibit or modify the claim within 120 days, the company can use the claim.

The authoritative statement used as the basis for the health claim must
* come from a federal scientific body (the National Institutes of Health, National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, or the National Academy of Sciences, for example);
* be published by the scientific body and be currently in effect;
* state a relationship between a nutrient and a disease or health-related condition;
* be a statement that reflects a consensus within the scientific body, not a statement made by an individual employee of a federal scientific body; and
* be based on the scientific body’s deliberative review of the scientific evidence.
(The FDA will consult with the scientific body, when appropriate, to determine whether a statement is an authoritative one.)1

Some Examples of Basic Research
Let’s look at some types of information that might become the bases for authoritative statements for future food-related health claims.

* Avocados and green vegetables: According to the California Avocado Commission, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have found that lutein-a carotenoid in avocados and green vegetables-can help protect against prostate cancer. (The study involved California avocados.) Lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes, has been associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. UCLA lab tests showed that lutein reduced prostate cancer cell growth by 25 percent; lycopene reduced call growth by 20 percent. When lutein and lycopene were combined, prostate cancer cell growth was reduced by 32 percent. The researchers recommend that “further studies be done to investigate the nutrient-nutrient interactions of lutein and lycopene on the subcellular and molecular levels.”
Avocados, which are in the green-yellow vegetable group, also contain the antioxidants vitamin E, glutathione, and sitosterol, a plant component that can help to lower blood pressure. Antioxidants can help protect against the effects of free radicals-unstable oxygen molecules associated with aging and disease—by neutralizing them. Free radicals can damage cells and cause the body to age and become deceased. Other benefits of avocados are that they are cholesterol free and contain monounsaturated fats, which are “good” fats for heart health. They also are a source of fiber and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. (For more information on the health benefits of avocados, go to
* Wild blueberries. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, blueberries (fresh, frozen, or dried) ranked first in antioxidant activity when compared with 40 other commercially available fruits and vegetables.2 Consequently, they help protect against aging, heart disease, and cancer. One-half cup of blueberries constitutes one fruit serving.
Researchers have found that the pigments (phytochemicals) that give fruits and vegetables their color (and antioxidant properties) play a significant role in protecting against disease. Wild blueberries, which are harvested in Maine and Eastern Canada, are rich in anthocyanins and other phytochemical compounds.
A study conducted by James Joseph, Ph. D., chief of the neuroscience laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Center (HNRCA) on aging at Tufts University, demonstrated that a diet rich in blueberry extract reversed some loss of balance and coordination and improved short-term memory in aging rats. This was the first study to demonstrate a reversal in dysfunctions of behavior; earlier studies had linked high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables to prevention of function loss only (J. of Neuroscience, Sept. 15, 1999).
Dr. Joseph led a panel of experts in a presentation of key research findings regarding the high antioxidant activity of fruits and vegetables at the 52nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in San Francisco last November. Many of the presenters explained their work with blueberries, which, they say, “has demonstrated tremendous potential in forestalling the effects of aging.3 For additional information, go to


1 “Staking a Claim to Good Health,” Paula Kurtzweil, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer, Nov.-Dec. 1998.

2 Ronald L. Prior, Ph.D.; Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University; J. of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 44:701-705; 3426-3431, 1996; 46:2686-2693, 1998.

3 ” USDA Scientist Presents Research on the Potential Effect of Blueberries on Aging,” Canada NewsWire, Nov. 1999.

Comments or ideas? Has your department changed menus or instituted exercise or other programs to improve members’ health? Let us hear from you. E-mail Mary Jane Dittmar at

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