Researchers can test new food with … an artificial stomach?

It takes guts to drop $600,000 on a device that is about the size and shape of a Coke machine.

But buying an artificial stomach is going to allow scientists to save time and money because they won’t have to use human stomachs until they’re sure they have something worth taking that far.

“It’s hard to do clinical trials many times and (with) many samples,” said Sijo Joseph, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada, as he demonstrated how the brand new “dynamic stomach model” will work. It was set to start digesting on Dec. 1.

“This is a way to pre-screen the samples.”

The machine is able to perform all the main functions of the human stomach and upper intestine, from the stomach to the ileum. Substances can be fed into the two-stage stomach and passed through duodenum, jejunum and ileum, with enzymes, acids and fluids added to mimic real human gut processes.

Throughout the digestion process, samples can be extracted and tested, which is more than can easily be done with human beings. This way, bioavailability of substances can be assessed, as can how much polyphenols survive down to the jejunum and ileum, what glycemic impact something has, whether mycotoxins survive and also if mycotoxin-eliminators remain active.

“You can check different components,” said Joseph.

“In a human, you can get it only in a blood sample.”

The machine can be calibrated for refined research, such as the differing nutritional and digestion impacts of different crop varieties, how an adult digests food differently than a baby and how an animal digests differently from a human.

The Dutch machine functions like a human gut, using all the same processes and enzymes.  |  Ed White photo
The Dutch machine functions like a human gut, using all the same processes and enzymes. | Ed White photo

The artificial stomach is housed deep inside the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, which is tasked with finding and developing food products and components that can have a health-boosting impact. The centre is on the University of Manitoba campus in Winnipeg.

The centre conducts research on the human impact of functional foods by actually feeding the products it produces to humans.

A kitchen and cafeteria provide food and room for human subjects to eat and rooms downstairs let researchers take blood samples, put participants through exercise tests, and in other ways assess what the food is doing to the test subjects’ bodies.

Most tests don’t let the participants know the testable components they are eating, so individuals don’t know if they’re in the control group or the group getting a novel ingredient.

Recently the centre has been testing bagels with 50 percent pea protein in place of some wheat flour, but participants only know they are eating bagels.

The artificial stomach should help the centre refine its testing because various substances can be studied in the machine and only the most promising ones fed to real, live human beings.

That should help avoid research dead-ends.

The centre will “try to use this as a pre-screening method to screen different cultivars, different (crop) varieties, different formulations, different processing methods, and to maximize the health benefits,” said Joseph.

There are only two of these machines in Canada, with Laval University in Quebec housing an older version. It is manufactured in The Netherlands, and every six months a technician must come to Winnipeg to make sure the machine is functioning correctly.

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