An artificial stomach, which sheds new light on the "black box" of human digestion and is so realistic it even throws up, has been developed at the Norwich Institute of Food Research.
Five years in the making, the model gut "does everything the human stomach does" and can be used to come up with a "digestion recipe" for ordinary meals, according to Dr Martin Wickham, who led the project.
"Up until recently, the human stomach has been a black box - we know what goes in and what comes out, but not really what goes on inside. All the previous models were biochemical - we call them jam jar models - and the limitation with those is that you cannot do any work on real foods or anything that's structured; you can only work on nutrients or molecules and that was problematic for the food industry. Our gut can be fed complex multiphase structured meals, ie real foods that we eat everyday."
The Norwich model could be useful to firms developing foods with nutrients that must survive the rugby scrum of the stomach if they are to hit their target.
"One of the biggest problems probiotic manufacturers have, for instance, is making sure the probiotics get delivered to the large bowel in an intact form," said Wickham, whose team collaborated with the University of Nottingham's school of physics and astronomy on using echo-planar imaging to capture data on physical aspects of digestion, including shear, hydration and fluid dynamics.
A similar model developed by the Dutch researcher TNO 10 years ago analyses hormone response and the physics and kinetics of digestion, but can only be fed homogenised "baby" foods ... and it cannot vomit.