WASHINGTON (May 23, 2017) -- A broad audience ranging from high school students and military cadets to general officers and government Senior Executive Service had an opportunity during the Department of Defense, or DoD, Lab Day at the Pentagon on May 18 to learn about the science behind the Performance Readiness Bar, a calcium and vitamin D-fortified snack bar developed to optimize bone health in basic trainees.

Use of the snack bar is slated to begin at Fort Benning, Georgia, this summer and will be fully implemented at all four Army basic training locations in 2018.

Among the flurry of white tents lining the Pentagon, showcasing the Army's most advanced research, development and technology, Drs. James McClung and Erin Gaffney-Stomberg, two researchers from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, offered samples of the snack bar to interested visitors while discussing the collaborative research effort between USARIEM and the Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, in developing the product.

"USARIEM has been researching the requirements for calcium and vitamin D intake during Initial Military Training, or IMT, in order to optimize the bones' anabolic response to training, as stronger bones are more resistant to stress fractures," said Gaffney-Stomberg, a research physiologist from USARIEM's Military Performance Division. "Our findings indicate that calcium and vitamin D requirements during IMT are higher than other times in order to support bone health."

Here's the scary truth: According to the Military Health System, recruits often arrive to basic training with poor calcium and vitamin D status, making their bones more vulnerable to stress fractures and other injuries.

"Because the U.S. population at large is generally less fit, many of the new Army recruits are not physically and physiologically ready to endure the rigors of Army IMT," said Dr. Stephen Muza, deputy director of Science and Technology at USARIEM. "Consequently, many well-educated and motivated recruits suffer skeletal injuries that can lead to their medical disqualification from military duty. The Performance Readiness Bar is one elegant solution to this problem that will reduce attrition and personnel costs associated with IMT. This will lead to increased Army readiness."

Gaffney-Stomberg added that "99 percent of the body's calcium is stored in the skeleton, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and strengthen bones." Performing high physical activity while these nutrient levels are low starts to cause problems.

"When you do not get enough calcium in your diet, your body will mine calcium out of your bones to support vital functions like muscle contraction and nerve conduction, at the expense of your skeleton," Gaffney-Stomberg said. "Over time, this will weaken bone, making it more susceptible to fracture."

The percent of recruits who experience stress fractures is even scarier.

"Stress fractures occur after unaccustomed activities or overuse, such as carrying heavy loads -- common during basic training," said McClung, deputy chief of USARIEM's Military Nutrition Division. "Up to 20 percent of female recruits and five percent of male recruits suffer from stress fractures during IMT. Women beginning training with poor vitamin D status are particularly vulnerable."

These injuries can impact Soldier readiness, resulting in up to 60 percent of those suffering from stress fractures to drop out of the military.

Years of nutrition research and field studies by USARIEM scientists have demonstrated that higher levels of calcium and vitamin D in the body increases bone density in response to training. Eating the calcium and vitamin D-fortified Performance Readiness Bar supports a recruit's bone health and reduces injury risk.

"Our test Soldiers ate these bars each evening," McClung said. "We observed marked improvements in their nutritional status and bone health. An added benefit may be better performance during physical training before the next morning's breakfast."

This year, the Pentagon featured approximately 90 displays from research and development labs throughout the DoD. Experts from the Army, Navy and Air Force demonstrated their high-tech tools, medical advancements and programs to hundreds of visitors, including numerous congressional and DoD leaders, as well as students and Pentagon employees.

USARIEM was among 14 joint medical exhibits displaying products and research to demonstrate how these DoD medical labs support military personnel during training and on the battlefield. Exhibit highlights included medical training programs, combat feeding research, trauma care and battlefield medicine breakthroughs, traumatic brain injury research, DoD Zika response efforts, biological defense research, and bone health optimization products.

The annual DoD Lab Days showcase relevant military research that is critical to the health and well-being of the nation's warfighter. For Muza, these Lab Days spotlight the unique and critical research capabilities and solutions Army medical labs, including USARIEM, provide to reduce injury rates and optimize servicemen's and servicewomen's health and performance.

"Being a warfighter is a unique occupation with very limited civilian counterparts," Muza said. "To effectively and efficiently provide the warfighter with the methods and means to optimize and sustain their health and performance requires a research and development community that understands warfighters' operational environment. USARIEM has a highly educated and innovative science and technology staff with the knowledge and experience to provide preventative medicine products customized to the warfighter's requirements."