Don't slack on the salmon

Ken Stark putting a chunk of salmon into metal blender-looking machine

There's something fishy going on in Ken Stark's lab. The assistant professor in kinesiology develops innovative ways to uncover how much Omega-3 Canadians are consuming. He's testing not the food they eat, but the blood in their veins.

"Trying to figure out what people eat is very difficult because they lie or forget," says Stark, seeming to channel House from the hit television show. "So we use blood instead of asking questions."

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids necessary for human health and are found only in food. Health agencies encourage people to eat Omega-3-rich fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, sardines, anchovies, and albacore tuna to slash the risk of heart disease.

Traditional means of analysis can be time-consuming or unreliable, depending on the method. For instance, if a subject eats salmon one night and is asked the question, "How many servings of fish have you eaten in the past week?" the results can become skewed if that was the only plate of fish eaten all month. Analyzing blood samples, however — what Stark calls "dietary forensics" — negates the need for questions at all. Blood analysis is not only relatively quick: blood doesn't lie.

Stark's methods have caught the attention of Certo Labs Inc., a Toronto-based startup that is developing and commercializing a new device that tests food samples so nutrition labels are accurate. Stark submitted the patent with the company to make it happen.

"If I hadn't been at Waterloo, I don't know I would have pursued it," says Stark. “But I’m glad I did.”