Newswise — LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 5, 2020) – To fight the negative health effects of environmental toxins, reach for more fruits and vegetables – that’s the message University of Kentucky Assistant Professor of Dietetics and Human Nutrition Dawn Brewer is sharing with the local community.

Research conducted within UK’s Superfund Research Center (UK-SRC) suggests that proper nutrition can reduce the toxicity of environmental pollutants. Brewer leads the UK-SRC’s Community Engagement Core (CEC), which is working to connect this science with the community to improve the health of Kentuckians.

“What the CEC does is translate the research into messages that community audiences can understand,” Brewer said. “We tell them about how healthful nutrition – particularly, fruits and vegetables – can be beneficial to their health and protect them from a number of chronic diseases.”

UK-SRC research in the lab of Bernhard Hennig, a professor in UK’s Department of Animal & Food Sciences, found a connection between environmental toxicants and cardiovascular disease. It also suggests a diet high in fiber and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables could reduce negative health effects associated with exposure to environmental pollutants.

A Family and Consumer Sciences Extension program called BerryCare is an example of how the CEC is connecting this research with the community. Brewer and students work with community partners that have land where they can plant blackberry bushes. So far, the CEC has successfully piloted the program at a nearby senior center, Brewer says.

“It generates a plentiful source of blackberries that are a vital nutrient-packed fruit that tends to be pretty expensive for people, but is very healthy,” Brewer said. “And some of the phytonutrients that you find in those blackberries are being studied in Dr. Hennig’s lab.”

The project also gives Brewer’s students – generally dietetic or human nutrition students who go on to become registered dietitians or other health care professionals – valuable hands-on experience.

“To get that kind of hands-on research experience is just so important to these students and is something that we're really proud of. It supports our graduate students as well,” Brewer says.

The CEC also supports the work of the UK-SRC by engaging with various community partners to address health disparities and assist with program and funding allocation. The programs are making an impact on the very communities these students will go on to serve after graduation.

“So many people are interested in learning more about nutrition, health and physical activity. It's very easy for us to provide education about these topics, and that tends to be our gateway into communities,” Brewer said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated thousands of contaminated sites in the U.S. as “Superfund” sites. Kentucky is home to 20 (13 active) EPA National Priorities List Superfund hazardous waste sites. The UK-SRC is an interdisciplinary program including researchers from several UK colleges that strives to reduce the negative health and environmental impacts of chlorinated organic compounds found at these sites across Kentucky and the U.S.

The UK-SRC is funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) and is one of NIEHS’s nationwide family of Superfund Research Programs.