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

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If you’re happy ...

Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” (Busseri is no stranger to Research Matters, having answered one of the great questions asked of the Curiosity Shop, “Why is the grass always greener on the other side?”)   BU: How do you define wellbeing? MB: Historically there have been two broad traditions. One looks at things like satisfaction, enjoyment, pleasure and not pain. That’s called the Hedonic Tradition. The second tradition is about finding meaning, purpose and growth; that’s called the Eudemonic Tradition. Where the rubber meets the road for most people is the question of, ‘How can I get more of that, whatever it is?’ It all sounds good: who wouldn’t want a meaningful life, a purposeful life, an enjoyable life? One camp says, you know what? Happiness, wellbeing – regardless of the type – is determined by the genetic lottery of life. It’s more like a personality trait. They may fluctuate around that day-to-day, moment-to-moment, but if you check in with them every year and do that for 10 or 20 years in a row you find a lot of stability. The other camp says, well, that might be true for many people but there’s still a significant chunk of individuals who experience radical changes as a result of, unfortunately, largely negative life events: the death of a spouse; the loss of a job; a tragic injury; horrible crime. The impact of that event can last years for some individuals. BU: Can we become happier? MB: Short-term: there’s lots of evidence that people change their wellbeing; moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week. Longer term: it’s harder to find people who show the golden pattern of continuous increases. Where there are long-term changes in wellbeing, it tends to be on the down side. The ratio is almost two to one. But even those people who experience the lasting decreases – they are rare. We can be talking no more than 10 per cent of the population. The vast majority of us over the long term tend to be stable.   BU: Should we be discouraged or encouraged by those statistics? MB: The argument is, this is actually a positive thing! It shows how adaptive and resilient people are. The high highs, the people who experience lots of positive experiences in our lives are also the individuals who tend to experience lots of lows. In the extreme, we tend to think of these as “manic” individuals. Usually, this idea of huge fluctuations in wellbeing is not something we would recommend. BU: Is there any part of our wellbeing we can control? MB: Most of us want a satisfying and meaningful life beyond simply saying, well, you may win or lose the genetic lottery of life. But we can choose how we spend our time. Moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week, we can have some influence by choosing certain activities or choosing to spend time with people who are meaningful and important to us. Even if we realize that that boost is going to be temporary, who cares? For those moments that we’re experiencing it, we’re happy! BU: Can we “bank” these happy moments to draw upon when we feel sad? MB: Another controversial issue. Some people have argued that what you experience moment-to-moment gets stored in a separate bank than the part of you that holds the beliefs about your life. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize-winning psychologist, has suggested we talk about this as two “selves.” The “experiencing self” is the you that, moment-to-moment, is experiencing life. The other self is the “story-telling self,” which has beliefs about how your life is going. Often those beliefs don’t align very closely with your experiencing self. It turns out there are cultural myths about wellbeing that influence our stories. One of these is that young adults tend to believe life gets better and better, and older adults tend to believe that life gets worse and worse. Both are myths, but you find these myths around the world. They’re wrong because for most individuals, the “real life story” is one of stability, not one of inclines and declines.

Lucid dreaming depends on ...

Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.

In money we trust

U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014

A few years ago, late, late at night, I was tooling around the streets of Ottawa in the back seat of a Jeep being driven by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. American economist and Nobel Laureate George Akerlof was riding shotgun. read more »
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Phony shoppers

Marianne Koh | September 30, 2014

Cash gave way to magnetic strips, which gave way to chip-and-PIN, which gave way to “tap-and-pay” credit card scanners. Get ready for the next thing. read more »
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