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The Secret to the Perfect Recipe is Understanding your Ingredients

DNA strand made up of different ingredients with chef hat on top.

We all have our favourite recipes, and having the right ingredients is a critical part of creating these tried and tested dishes. Swap one type of flour for another or use a different pan, and your cake may not turn out the same way. Something similar happens inside your cells: nutrients are processed according to “recipes” written in your DNA, forming new chemicals (metabolites) that keep your body functioning. When you take a deeper look at the cellular “ingredients” we consume, there is perhaps more to choosing the right foods than we realize. A world-renowned facility based in Alberta, The Metabolomics Innovation Centre (TMIC), is using cutting-edge technologies and equipment to create the world’s most extensive database on food constituents, chemistry and biology, providing information and testing services that are helping the food and beverage industry produce higher quality, more flavourful and nutritious food.

At the core of TMIC’s operations is metabolomics – the science of identifying, comparing and quantifying metabolites. These small chemical molecules, which include sugars, fatty acids, and lipids, regulate biological processes in plants and animals. Metabolomics explores these chemical processes, as well as their impact on the biological systems of living organisms.

TMIC was established in 2011 by a team of researchers at the University of Alberta who recognized the potential for metabolomics to help the broader research community in sectors ranging from health to agriculture. Since its inception, TMIC has grown into a global leader in metabolomics. The specialized equipment and team of experts at the facility are continuously advancing cutting-edge technologies in metabolomics and growing their nearly 15 freely available databases. TMIC’s extensive resources include the world’s most comprehensive metabolomic databases on several topics, including human metabolism (HMDB), pharmaceuticals (DrugBank), and foods (FooDB). FooDB holds information on nearly 800 foods and 80,000 compounds. This data empowers the food and beverage and agricultural industries to take a deep dive into the chemistry of the ingredients in their products, enabling informed decisions regarding the selection of foods or crops as ingredients, as well as optimal production parameters.

What is particularly powerful about metabolomics is its link to genetics. Each individual has a unique genetic makeup which acts like a cellular recipe card, and this can impact how they respond to different foods. By studying the way genes and food components interact, researchers can better understand how diet affects an individual’s risk of different diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. The genetic makeup of plants similarly impacts how they respond to specific nutrients or environmental conditions like drought or wildfire smoke.

Experts from TMIC are supporting a variety of food and beverage industries in making important decisions about the ingredients in their products. The TMIC team provides extensive metabolomic knowledge and analysis expertise that can help us understand how a food’s components give it its desirable characteristics like flavour, colour, texture and aroma. Several Alberta-based companies are already leveraging TMIC’s services to take their products to the next level. Blind Enthusiasm, a micro-brewery in Edmonton is working with TMIC to optimize its fermentation process to produce a higher-quality beer. Transcend Coffee, also in Edmonton, has partnered with TMIC to fine-tune its roasting time, with the goal of giving its customers the most flavourful, aromatic cup of coffee possible. These product-enhancing efforts can significantly contribute to a business’s customer base and profitability.

TMIC can also provide information to inform decisions on which crops to grow. For example, TMIC is helping Alberta’s agriculture industry explore why some varieties of wheat are more susceptible to pests. By understanding how different wheat varieties respond to conditions like drought and pests, farmers can select the best crops to grow and avoid disastrous crop yields. Another example of how TMIC is supporting the food industry is its Milk Composition Database, which provides the dairy industry with extensive information on milk composition. This helps the industry make decisions that produce high-quality milk with high nutritional value.

Genome Alberta is a long-term partner of TMIC. By investing in the highly specialized metabolomics equipment and software at TMIC, Genome Alberta has helped it grow into a world-class facility with internationally used databases. Not only does TMIC have the tools to be a leader in metabolomics, but it also has the expertise to run diverse analyses to support a variety of industries. From providing important information on how food impacts our personal health to how we can grow and harvest high-quality, nutritious food, TMIC is continuously developing new techniques and databases that will contribute to healthier people and businesses across Alberta and beyond.

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