Inside a Metabolic Kitchen

When cooking from a recipe, most of us measure ingredients using cups, ounces, and teaspoons. However, at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the Metabolic Kitchen meticulously weighs their ingredients, gram by gram.

The Metabolic Kitchen is a state-of-the-art facility that is equipped to provide food service for Pennington Biomedical’s clinical trial participants. Dietitians work directly with principal investigators (the lead scientist) as they plan, research, and design study protocols. Approximately 225 meals a day can be prepared in the kitchen, and a nutritional analysis program is used to precisely plan menus and recipes that meet the requirements of each study protocol.

Renee Puyau, director of the Metabolic Kitchen, is a registered dietitian who has been with Pennington Biomedical for 12 years. After countless hours of prepping food for trial participants, she’s learned that it is a very time-consuming science that can’t be rushed. Therefore, meals are made the day before to ensure that the correct foods are on hand and that everything will be weighed accurately, down to a tenth of a gram.

“It’s so fun to work here because the job is always changing. It might be the same for a small period of time, but then that study ends and a new one begins that is completely different,” said Renee.

When a new study starts, the principal investigator comes to Renee with their study protocol weeks ahead of time. The needs of each study are unique and can vary from calorie content to micro nutrient specificity. For example, the study might require that the meals are at a certain calorie count, but the calories need to be 30% from fat, 15% from protein, and 55% from carbohydrates. Or, the study might require a certain level of calcium, vitamins, and other types of micro nutrients.

The kitchen then uses their nutritional analysis program to help them define a menu and create a plan. Recipes are laid out in grams so that every calorie, macro nutrient, and micro nutrient can be accounted for. Even food brands need to be consistent for each participant to allow for uniformity across the study. Keeping track of inventory is key for this to work.

For an almond and peach oatmeal breakfast that is part of a 1200 calorie diet, these are the measurements of each ingredient needed. Lunch and dinner will also have recipes written in the same format.

Below is an example of the spaghetti lunch specifically made for the DYNAMMO B study. This study aims to understand what causes insulin resistance, with the goal of discovering new options to prevent and treat type 2 diabetes. Every item is measured out one at a time – even the milk is measured drop by drop!

Over the years, Renee has overseen countless study protocols, and is constantly amazed by the work her staff of ten pulls off time and time again.

One of the most challenging studies she mentioned involved Pennington Biomedical as well as centers located in Florida, Maryland, and New York. Renee and her team were the ones making all of the food for these different sites. It was an 8 week feeding study, the recipes were very complicated, and there was a lot that had to be cooked and individually weighed. Then, each meal was packaged and shipped in insulated boxes on dry ice.

“There was so much trial and error. We would prep, package, and ship them, but when they arrived, some of them had torn film or were damaged. So obviously they couldn’t feed them to the participants and we had to start all over, but eventually we figured out how to best package them,” she said. “That study definitely sticks out in my mind because there were times where I honestly didn’t know how we were going to get it done, but we did!”

Challenges like this one happen daily, but Renee and her team always find a way through.

The Metabolic Kitchen is an integral part of any clinical study at Pennington Biomedical. Their precise measurements allow researchers to get the most accurate data for their studies, and their loyalty to make delicious, healthy foods ensure that participants love everything that they eat. As a world renowned nutritional research center, Pennington Biomedical is lucky to have the metabolic kitchen and its hard working team making sure each study’s requirements are as precise as possible.

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