Developing the Foods of the Future
Kanon Kobata '22
Food Science, BDIC
Commonwealth Honors College
“Instead of just the moments of success, it was also the moments of failure that allured me in the lab."
Growing up in her native Japan as a pescatarian, Kanon Kobata ’22 frequently found herself with a lack of options when dining out with friends and family.
“It may sound ironic as Japan is famous for its soy products and shojin [Zen Buddhism-inspired vegetarian] cuisine cultures. However, Japanese people these days consume many more animal-based proteins such as pork, chicken, and beef,” she explains.
Kobata has long dreamed of inventing vegetarian alternatives to these foods, which both she and her omnivorous friends could enjoy. “Then, I encountered this rising trend of plant-based foods in western countries before coming to college, and that pushed me to study food science abroad at UMass Amherst.”
Kobata is grateful for all the opportunities she has found at UMass to explore this interest. As a sophomore, she joined the food science lab of Distinguished Professor David Julian McClements, investigating the applications of nanoemulsion and biopolymer crosslinking techniques for the purpose of designing plant-based alternative “seafood.”
In summer 2021, as a William Lee SIP Scholar through the College of Natural Sciences, Kobata conducted research to develop a plant-based analog for scallop, and to design 3D printing methodology for plant-based beef steaks and bacon. In addition to publishing a paper in the journal Foods, the researchers also filed a patent disclosure for the scallop design technology, which is currently under review. Kobata presented her work at the 2021 UMass Undergraduate Summer Research Conference and at a UMass Plant-Based Conference. This project also gained attention in the media, including a segment on WCVB-TV Boston and an article in Vogue Japan, among others. More recently, Kobata and the research team have worked on improving quality and safety of the scallop prototype for commercialization.
I am passionate about exciting our future food industry with the scientific techniques and knowledge I have gained as well as with my creative mindset.
Building on this work, Kobata then approached McClements with another innovative idea: developing a plant-based analog for sea foie gras—a monkfish liver product that is a delicacy in Japan—for her honors thesis.
Through these projects, Kobata has developed a fondness for lab-based experimental work and the deep exploration of scientific mechanisms in nanoscale food designs.
“Instead of just the moments of success, it was also the moments of failure that allured me in the lab,” she says. “Witnessing unexpected outcomes, I was even more fascinated to unravel the unknown, fully utilizing the knowledge packed from my coursework and literature reviews.”
Kobata has also participated in research involving bacteriophage therapy design for the gastrointestinal tracts of cattle. Phage therapy is a technique that targets disease-causing bacteria—such as those that cause food-borne illnesses—by infecting them with bacteria-targeting viruses.
"These technologies have been used for a while, yet there still are some challenges, especially effective delivery to the target point in the digestive tract of bacteria-inhabited animals,” Kobata explains. “We’re designing beads to encapsulate these viruses and release them effectively at the target points in the digestive tract.”
Microbial studies tend to progress more slowly, she says, and she initially struggled to find confidence in her work. Yet she persevered through failures and repetitions in the lab, and ultimately followed “the solid scientific facts that led me to a single, rational, and elegant solution.”
Overcoming this challenge reminded Kobata of another tough experience in her young life: competing, and eventually receiving first place, in a national ballet competition. “The phages have taught me the significance of patience and tenacity—the spirit instilled in me through my career as a dancer—to manage the unexpected moments of science,” she says.
In preparation for her intended career in the biotech industry, Kobata created a secondary major, Sustainable Food Business, through which she has developed scientific entrepreneurial skills and discovered a passion she hadn’t previously realized. Beyond the classroom, she has fine-tuned her business acumen by participating in product development competitions through the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
McClements describes Kobata as an exceptionally “creative, hardworking, focused, motivated, articulate, and passionate young scientist. I strongly believe she will be a future leader in food science and technology.”
As for her post-graduation plans, Kobata is still looking into both PhD programs and researcher positions in the food science industry. Whichever path she takes, Kobata imagines she will be doing research. And her ultimate goal is to launch her own start-up to innovate sustainable food landscape.
“I am passionate about exciting our future food industry with the scientific techniques and knowledge I have gained as well as with my creative mindset,” she says.