Designing Next-Generation Alternative Proteins
Hung (Harry) Pham '23
Food Science, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Commonwealth Honors College
Vung Tau, Vietnam
What drew you to this field of study?
I’ve always loved food and want to use that passion to make the world better! Addressing food systems problems can solve both environmental and human public health issues by creating more resilient, healthier, and accessible food across the board. Food science is such an interdisciplinary field, requiring not only specific technical knowledge but also systems thinking and creativity, which are critical skills to develop for solving increasingly complex problems facing the world. I’ve also long been fascinated by how living systems work together. As a freshman, I was introduced to the alternative protein space when I learned about alumni from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who founded Finless Foods, a company that produces plant-based and cultivated seafood. The work of these alumni and their company inspired me to declare biochemistry and molecular biology as my second major.
How do you conduct your research?
My sophomore year, my advisor, Professor David Julian McClements in the Department of Food Science, introduced me to water-in-water emulsions, which are similar in appearance to oil droplets in salad dressing, but are made of water-soluble food ingredients with no oil needed. This phenomenon, common in many food products and ubiquitous in many living systems, made apparent the intersection between my majors in food science and biochemistry under the lens of soft matter physics. This led to two notable projects using plant-based proteins and dietary fibers to design sustainable foods, with support from the Commonwealth Honors College through a Research Assistant Fellowship and Honors Research Grant.
My first project focused on using water-in-water emulsions as a low-energy approach to produce a plant-based scallop analog without using a specialized extruder, which requires high thermal and mechanical energy. We showed that by optimizing the compositions of plant protein and fiber to introduce two immiscible phases (like oil droplets in vinegar for salad dressing), and introducing mild stirring, we could obtain the characteristic short-fiber microstructure in our scallop analog, with similar appearance and texture to real scallop after cooking. The project is published in Foods MDPI, and was featured on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) website. We also filed a patent disclosure earlier this year, which is under review.
My second project, which is part of my thesis, focuses on physical modification of plant proteins as a simple approach to improve food 3D printing applications, without needing to add thickeners or other ingredients that may be off-putting to some consumers. The goal is to harness the intrinsic properties of plant proteins and assemble them together into a semi-solid material that can be extruded through a printing nozzle yet maintain its printed shape over time. We found that by adjusting pH and temperature, two plant protein ink types can be 3D printed. This has potential applications to enable not only whole-muscle plant-based meat analogs but also fat replacers in semi-solid cheese and spreads (like cream cheese), plant-based gelatin, and hybrid scaffolding for cultivated foods. An early-stage 3D printing prototype of this project was featured on WCVB Boston News and Vogue Japan. I also presented this work at two poster sessions, the Center of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment (CAFE) summer scholar session and UMass Polymer & Soft Matter symposium, and gave presentations at two international conferences, the Society of Food Engineering conference in September in Raleigh, N.C., and Elsevier’s 2nd NIZO Plant Protein Functionality Conference, based in the Netherlands.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
Sustainable food is not just about using sustainable ingredients or sources; it also means creating less energy-intensive, scalable, and regenerative processing systems to continue sustaining our human-food relationships, especially in the face of urgent crises confronting our planet and human health.
The scallop project opens up a simpler way of creating more realistic meat analogs or other novel food structures without utilizing high-energy resources required by current manufacturing practices.
The 3D printing project would enable a simple approach to modifying the functionalities of food protein inks. It also opens doors to food applications in spaces such as fat replacers, interactive 3D-printed foods, and possibly, solutions to either plant-based, cultivated, or “hybrid” meats.
Addressing food systems problems can solve both environmental and human public health issues by creating more resilient, healthier, and accessible food across the board.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
Professor McClements has been very empathetic and supportive with my research projects and goals. He taught me not only how to conduct research and to approach research questions critically, but also inspired me to be a visionary leader and a great collaborator. He allows room for me to learn about myself and nurture my own research interests by working with many fantastic people in the lab, as well as other faculty members, including Professor Jiakai Lu in the Department of Food Science, who is also on my thesis committee.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
Working in the alternative protein space, I feel that I’m in a critical position to push the frontiers of the field. Though there is still much ambiguity, I know I’m not alone, but part of a larger community of researchers working together toward important goals to drive innovation and impacts.
What are you most proud of?
I am fortunate to have collaborated with many undergraduate and graduate researchers, all working toward different research goals with a variety of challenges and interesting results. This experience has shaped how I approach my research. I’m proud that my work has resulted in publications, press coverage, and patents.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
Performing research and having formal educational training are mutually beneficial. I’ve been able to draw on the history, principles, and rationale of discovery I learned from my coursework to design experiments and answer research questions. At the same time, research has taught me transferrable soft skills that apply in both classroom and real-life environments, including project management, collaborating with others, and communicating to various audiences. This is something unique about a college setting, where there are peers and mentors with whom to bounce ideas, space to make mistakes, and room to grow.
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue working as researcher in the food-tech start-up space, contributing to the next scientific frontiers in alternative proteins, while also applying for PhD programs, something I’ve aspired to for a long time. Regardless of what lies ahead, it’s very clear that there are things to discover and problems to solve as we shift to new diets and food cultures while working to reverse the effects of climate change. I’m excited about what the future of food, materials, and biology can hold!
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
As a public research university, UMass has many research opportunities available for undergraduate students. It also offers numerous majors and elective courses to explore across departments. Of course, we have one of the best food science programs in the world, along with a diverse group of students from around the globe.