Draped in long white lab coats, Dr. Nancy Ames and Dr. Sijo Joseph stand in front of a unique and pricey piece of machinery in a room on the bottom floor of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods.
With the flick of a switch, the $600,000 artificial stomach that simulates human digestion hums to life. Then, with the back of his pen, Joseph pokes at the buttons on the touch-screen monitor, configuring the artificial stomach’s settings.
"It takes six hours to run — to digest the food. Just like a human. It’s a very unique system, with all these compartments," says Joseph, pointing to the contraption’s complicated tubing system, which resembles the human gut.
"If you want to test the food, the food components, to see how helpful it is, you have to really run a human feeding trial. You have to recruit people, feed them, then test their blood samples and analyze it.
"With this, we test the nutritional aspects of Canadian-grown crops — Manitoba specifically — to see if we can predict the nutritional profile using a simulation before we try it on humans."
Elsewhere in the Richardson Centre, other researchers are spearheading various food studies, including taking closer looks at the effect almonds have on gut health and the anti-inflammatory properties of the Queen Garnet plum.
On most days, Joseph, Ames and another team member are in the stomach room operating the machine.
The research entails feeding food (often waffles) to a "masticator" (mechanical chewer), then pumping it into the artificial stomach’s system of tubes, before waiting for it to digest and analyzing the results.
The work has innumerable, tangible benefits to food research in the province, says Joseph, standing in front of the machine, holding a plate of waffles made from Manitoba crops.
"We can watch how food is assimilated and digested through the human system," he says, waving the plate back and forth as he talks.
"We masticate the food. Basically you can have waffles, pulse products, muffins, anything you eat, together with milk, together with juice. Then we wait for it to digest and we see if we can predict the nutritional profile."
— Ryan Thorpe
Photography by Mike Deal