Adam Forbes

Making Naturally Colored, Iron-Fortified Foods More Affordable

Adam Forbes '24 studies a new, more efficient and cost-effective method of assessing how natural food colorants interact with iron, commonly used to fortify foods.

Adam Forbes '24

Food Science and Mathematics
Commonwealth Honors College

Arlington, MA

What drew you to this field of study?

I grew up in a big foodie family, and my dad is a phenomenal cook. I remember when we made sourdough together and he taught me about how yeast works, and that sparked my interest in food beyond just how it tasted. I’ve always loved chemistry and math, and originally started my undergraduate career in chemical engineering, but I came to learn that I was more interested in fundamental science. I am interested in how food intersects with public health, the environment, [and] chemistry—all these disciplines come together to form food science. I also love how different labs in the Department of Food Science use different methods, but they all have the same goal: to create more sustainable, resilient, healthier food systems.

How do you conduct your research?

I work in the food science lab of Dr. Lili He, where we primarily use a couple of different molecular and elemental fingerprinting technologies, using lasers and X-rays. Basically, we shoot a laser at something and it tells us important structural information.  

For the past year and a half, I’ve worked on a project studying molecules called anthocyanins that give certain foods—like purple sweet potatoes and red radishes—their vibrant purple, blue, and red colors. These molecules have a range of different hues, but they share some important structural characteristics. They can be extracted and used as natural food colorants, but when they’re used in iron-fortified foods—which are common as the food industry works to [both] combat the global public health concern of iron deficiency and replace synthetic food colorants—they can react with the iron to turn an unappealing gray or brown color over time. This challenge requires food manufacturers to have a quality control step to test how iron reacts with extracted anthocyanins from each crop batch. The current process used in industry is very expensive and time-consuming, and it requires chemicals that are not the greenest.

The goal of our project is to use lasers to rapidly gather structural information on anthocyanin molecules from different fruits and vegetables, which can be used to predict how they will react with iron. In my research, I purified colorant extracts from different plants and collected their molecular fingerprints. Then, to see if we could just use the molecular fingerprint of our anthocyanin extracts, we did the standard testing done in industry. We used a machine learning model to see if we could predict the results based on the molecular fingerprint and found that, for the most part, we could.  

I think that research doesn’t just teach you, but it requires you to think critically, to organize your time, to plan meticulously, and to really think about a project from the molecular level up to the application—from the tiniest detail to the end game.

Adam Forbes ’24

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

Generally, Dr. He’s lab is focused on finding new and better methods of doing things in food science. Our research project suggests that that this molecular fingerprinting approach could be a suitable replacement for the current quality control testing done in industry and would significantly reduce costs and processing time. It also yields other potentially valuable information on which molecular structures are related to high stability, which could be useful in identifying food stabilizers.

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

I’ve always felt supported throughout my time at UMass, especially in the Department of Food Science. I’m very grateful to Dr. He because she’s always believed in me, no matter what. She's pushed me to step outside my comfort zone and do things like compete in research competitions, which I probably wouldn’t have done on my own. These experiences have wound up being extremely helpful and formative. Dr. He also gives really, really good advice on my projects, helping me work through the struggles of science. My mind is often blown after meeting with her.

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

I find it exciting to think that my research might result in not just a published paper, but a new method used to make the world a better place by making naturally colored, iron-fortified foods more affordable for people. In general, I think food science research holds a lot of promise to make foods more affordable, accessible, safe, and healthy.

What are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of how much confidence I’ve gained in my own research skills. I was pretty shy about research when I first started, which I think is really common. Now, I have my own projects with a lot more responsibility, and I feel comfortable in that. Personal growth is such an important part of doing research.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

I think that research doesn’t just teach you, but it requires you to think critically, to organize your time, to plan meticulously, and to really think about a project from the molecular level up to the application—from the tiniest detail to the end game. I think these are such valuable skills that you can’t gain from classes alone; you have to be doing hands-on research. I believe these skills will serve me throughout my entire life and career.

In research, you have to care about what you’re doing to a level that you’ve never cared before because every single variable can change the result. That’s really important, both in and outside of research.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m staying on at UMass to complete an accelerated master’s degree in food science in Dr. He’s lab. I’m really looking forward to it.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

I would definitely recommend UMass because I feel like there is so much opportunity hiding in places you may not realize. It requires you to do a little looking, but once you do, you’ll find so many things you didn’t even know you could be interested in. That’s been the most amazing part of my research experience, and I think it’s representative of the experience of many of my friends at UMass. There are so many amazing things happening here. It really feels like the world is your oyster.

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