Bet you can’t research just one

We’re standing in an unconventional laboratory in a campus research facility – the kind of place you’d never imagine anything unusual happens.

A technician lowers a sample of experimental material F07026 into a bath of heated triglyceride compounds.

Several molecular changes happen at once. A process called the Maillard reaction causes the sugars in F07026 to caramelize and darken. The triglycerides – also known as vegetable oil – displace the water in the material. The evicted water causes the bath to roil and spit.

As soon as the water has boiled away and the oil is calm again, the technician removes the samples, spreading them out to cool.

The experiment requires one more step to complete: the addition of sodium chloride crystals.

Salted potato chips, ready to eat.

The University of Guelph has had a frying lab since the 1980s. Those were heady days for potato research at the university, the pinnacle of which was the development of the Yukon Gold potato.

There’s a new quest now: the race is on to find an even greater tater.

What does this wonder spud of the future have that today’s tubers do not? For one thing, plant breeders are looking for a strain of potato that can be stored at cooler temperatures without its starches turning to sugar.

“The industry is always interested in knowing whether varieties will produce good quality chips when stored at a lower temperature because they can reduce sprout inhibitors and maintain dormancy longer, says Vanessa Currie, the research technician who has been frying sample batches for me.

Potato chips

One potato? Two potatoes? Actually, it’s one potato stored two different ways.

Currie laid out two portions of chips on the table. Both were made from F07026 potatoes, which had been grown, harvested sliced and fried exactly the same way. But the differences were stark: one pile was tawny and delicious, while the other dark brown stack tasted burnt and bitter.

The difference was in how they had been stored after harvest. The burnt chips came from spuds stored at 4 degrees, while the tastier snack had spent the winter at 10-12 degrees. In the cooler storage area, more starch turned to sugar, and that made all the difference.

“The Maillard reaction causes sugars to brown when frying,” said Alan Sullivan, a Guelph researcher and plant breeder who oversees potato research at the university. “The sugars combine with amino acids and cause a dark colour. In a lot of foods that’s fine. In fact, it’s what gives bread and seared meat their appealing colour.”

But in the deep fryer, too much sugar spoils the chip.

Chip producers want a spud that keeps its starch at 4-8 degrees: If they could store them at that temperature, they could reduce their use of sprout inhibitors and anti-pest chemicals. They could store the potatoes for longer, which would lead to major cost savings.

Cold storage is just one issue of concern for the Guelph researchers. Another desirable quality is rapid maturation (which would allow for a longer harvesting season and less storage time).

“Potato chip producers want product 12 months of the year,” Currie says. “There’s a significant part of our season in Ontario where they don’t have local potatoes. At that time they have to import them from the States at considerable expense.”

And of course, what’s good for the chip bag is different than what’s good for the mash or the fry. Breeders aren’t seeking a single superpotato, so much as they are a variety of new strains, each optimized for starch content, water content, robustness in the face of rain and drought, yield, disease and pesticide resistance, and many other factors.

Of course, private companies like Frito Lay have their own fry labs. But Sullivan thinks there is great value in having such research take place at a university.

“We are publicly funded, and everything that we do is public,” says Sullivan. “We produce reports that are disseminated to the industry – not just potato growers but on the table stock side there are chefs who want to know what the latest is. Loblaws is also interested.”

Breeding and cross breeding is a lengthy process with many factors – sometimes you get a potato that’s great in cold storage, but the yield is inadequate. In fact, species F07026 is one of hundreds that have been researched at the university. Hope, of course, sprouts eternal.

“Everybody is looking for the next Yukon Gold,” Sullivan says.


The Research Matters blog periodically publishes a range of stories centred around a specific theme. This story is part of a series on Food and Drink.

Tagged: Economy, Nature, Resources, Technology, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts


From farm to fork

ORION staff | October 9, 2015

It’s morning. Farmers across Ontario are waking up to tend to their animals. You might be sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs—maybe even a few strips of bacon. We take it for granted that this food will be safe to eat. But we rarely think about why. That, in part, is thanks to people like University of Guelph systems design engineer Deborah Stacey. Relying on a high-performance computing network, her research helps inform the regulatory structures that ensure our food is free of contamination and that the animals it comes from are healthy. It is, in part, due to her work that we now have modelling programs such as NAADSM, the North American Animal Disease Spread Model. This is the software governments and industry rely on to plan for and prevent epidemics. “NAADSM allows you to put in various scenarios for various animal diseases to see how they would spread,” says Stacey. “My interest is in looking at the network connections within that: contact, moving animals from one herd to another, and licking or touching other animals. I’m interested in how these contact networks differ across industries, which could suggest a different path of disease spread.” This research is then used by organizations such as the Guelph-based Poultry Industry Council to help determine which transportation and feed networks most effectively limit or eliminate things like avian diseases—in other words, how to ensure your scrambled eggs are safe. Stacey’s work produces a staggering amount of data, and it requires a lot of statistical analysis. It’s done through the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network, or SHARCNET, a consortium of Ontario universities, colleges and research centres using a shared system of distributed high-performance computing, linked together through the ORION network. “Studying these networks made me more aware of how we develop and distribute the food we eat,” Stacey says. “It was surprising to find out how critical these farming systems are, and that they can be understood using mathematical models. These human systems that we’ve evolved are incredibly complex, and it was enlightening to see how much we need to study this—our food safety and security depend on understanding these systems.” A  version of this story was originally published by ORION.  It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 
Student studying

Who gets into university

Sharon Oosthoek | September 28, 2015

Nipissing University sociologist David Zarifa studies the educational and labour market experiences of disadvantaged youth, and he has good news and bad news. The good news: access to undergraduate education continues to increase for traditionally disadvantaged students, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not continue past high school. The bad news: at the higher levels — post-graduate and professional programs — the playing field is much less level. Zarifa came to this conclusion after a close examination of Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey of the year 2000 cohort. The survey looks at the experience of 35,000 undergraduates who completed various programs across all provinces and territories. Sociologists have long known that social origins can influence a student's educational experience, directly through parents’ level of education and indirectly through student performance, aspirations, and academic confidence. But there is very little research in Canada about how social origins influence professional or graduate school attendance. When Zarifa crunched the Statistics Canada numbers, he found nearly 35 per cent of undergrads whose parents had a master’s or doctorate degree entered a professional or graduate level program. That compares to only about 13 per cent of graduates whose parents did not have a postsecondary education. He also found about 21 per cent of graduates without government-sponsored student loans entered a graduate or professional program, compared to only about 14 per cent of graduates with loans above $15,000. Zarifa says he is discouraged to see parent education still has an impact at the graduate and professional level, even when taking into consideration other important factors such as academic abilities, aspirations and the educational experiences of graduates. "You would hope by the time students have their undergraduate degree, they wouldn't have this disadvantage in carrying on and trying to better their career prospects," he says. He hopes his study draws attention to some of the challenges facing groups from less privileged backgrounds: "While more and more students are continuing on into some form of postsecondary education, not all social groups are accessing the most lucrative segments within the postsecondary system equally."  
immigration canada document

Welcoming newcomers

Robyn Dugas | August 25, 2015

Most research into Canadian immigration focuses on its three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Yet mid-sized cities such as Ottawa are just as dependent on newcomers to maintain populations, boost local economies and offset labour shortages. “Canada’s approach to managing the admission of newcomers is undergoing a fundamental change," says Western University social psychologist Stelian Medianu. "In particular, the new system that is taking shape will lead to greater involvement by employers and by colleges and universities.” But in places such as Ottawa, these organizations may lack the infrastructure and tools to help integrate immigrants. The answer, says Medianu, is interagency collaboration. Settlement agencies have the expertise — so why not bring that expertise to employers, universities and colleges as they help immigrants transition to Canadian society? Connecting with the experts Medianu’s research is just one part of the Pathways to Prosperity Partnership, a nation-wide alliance of university, government and community partners researching the integration of immigrants and minorities in Canada. He is working with an umbrella group representing Ottawa's settlement organizations called Local Agencies Serving Immigrants (LASI) Coalition. With the coalition's help, Medianu is identifying the needs of each stakeholder group: employers, educational institutions, immigrants and international students. He is also researching the most successful initiatives around the world to determine which ones could be put to use in the Ottawa region. His work is part of a year-long Mitacs Accelerate internship. Mitacs is a national non-profit organization that supports research partnerships between universities and partner organizations. Medianu is identifying how each LASI-affiliated settlement group is uniquely suited to furthering immigrant integration. "Each settlement agency has its own capacity and expertise," he says.  "Together they can create suites of services that better match the needs of employers, educational institutions and newcomers.” With that information at hand, Medianu has been  mapping potential partnerships between these settlement groups and the companies and institutions that could benefit from their expertise. At the end of the project, he’ll provide LASI with recommendations and research results that will help its member organizations build fruitful partnerships in the community and, ultimately, provide a streamlined settlement experience for new Canadians in mid-sized cities.

Tracking turtles

Sharon Oosthoek | August 24, 2015

James Paterson spent the spring of 2009 and 2010 hiding behind trees and crouching in the underbrush of Algonquin Park. Thus camouflaged, he allowed himself an occasional peek as he waited patiently for turtles to lay their eggs in the woods. But as soon as they left, he would dash out with a screen to cover the nests and protect the eggs from predators. read more »
Refugee children in settlement camp.

When exile drags on

Araina Bond | August 19, 2015

When James Milner visited Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in November 2001, they had been in place for almost a decade.  The camps are now nearly 25 years old and their occupants — mostly Somalis fleeing civil war and drought — number 350,000, making the camps the largest refugee settlement in the world. read more »
More Blogs »