Xiaoke Xiang ’25

Creating Next-Generation Plant-Based Foods

Xiaoke Xiang ’25 uses a soft matter physics approach to develop plant-based meat and egg alternatives with realistic textures and comparable nutritional profiles to their animal-derived analogs.

Xiaoke Xiang '25

Food Science

Hangzhou, China

What drew you to this field of study?  

During my junior high years, I was captivated by the fascinating world of molecular gastronomy, especially upon learning how chefs could create mango-flavored spheres resembling egg yolks through reactions between sodium alginate and calcium chloride. This spurred a deeper curiosity about the underlying physics and chemistry of food. By the end of my freshman year, I had the opportunity to delve into food science research. The results of experiments always fascinated me. For example, in a preliminary experiment, a mere adjustment of the pH value in potato protein led to a dramatic color change from brown to white, alongside significant microstructural alterations.  

How do you conduct your research?  

My research with Professor David Julian McClements focuses on applying soft matter physics to develop meat analogs and plant-based eggs. I have been involved in several projects on the development of next-generation plant-based foods to replace animal-derived ones, such as meat, seafood, and egg products, which have been linked to undesirable impacts on human and global health.

In my first project, I focused on modifying the textural attributes of potato protein gels using salts, polysaccharides, and transglutaminase to develop plant-based foods. These modifications contributed to the development of plant-based products with enhanced texture and palatability. This project was published in Food Hydrocolloids.

Building on the findings of the first project, we initiated the second project, which focused on utilizing ingredients such as plant-based protein, oil, polysaccharides, and salt to construct a plant-based chicken using a soft matter physics approach. This project was also published in Food Hydrocolloids.  

For the third project, my research focused on fortifying plant-based eggs with lutein, a carotenoid beneficial to eye health, particularly in preventing macular disease, using plant-based proteins. Moreover, I conducted in vitro digestion studies that showed these lutein-fortified eggs had good bioavailability, which is important to ensure their efficacy. This project was published in Foods. Additionally, several other projects are currently in progress or preparation for publication.

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

The impact of my work lies in bridging the nutritional and sensory gap between plant-based products and their animal-derived counterparts. By focusing on the microstructural manipulation of polysaccharides and proteins, my research aims to create plant-based meat alternatives that not only mimic the texture and color of real meat, eggs, and milk but also match their nutritional richness. This endeavor addresses a key challenge in the field of alternative proteins: the significant difference in nutritional content, such as the lack of essential nutrients like choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, selenium, and vitamin B12 in plant-based eggs, and the low protein content in many plant-based cheeses.

The successful development of nutritionally comparable and sensorially appealing plant-based products can lead to a shift in consumer preferences toward more sustainable and ethical food choices. Moreover, by making plant-based meats that are nutritionally rich and satisfying in taste and texture, we can reduce the environmental impact associated with animal farming, contribute to global food security, and provide healthier dietary options for the public.  

Research at UMass Amherst has truly opened my eyes, significantly increasing my confidence and excitement about learning.

Xiaoke Xiang ’25

How does your faculty mentor support your research?  

My mentor, Professor McClements, has always been supportive of my ideas, encouraging me to explore them regardless of their initial appearance as good or bad. He has provided me with the time and space needed to improve. For example, at the beginning, I knew little about food chemistry, but now I can confidently make presentations to an audience. Whenever I’ve needed help, he’s always been there.

[Professor Mcclements's] enthusiasm for academia has been a consistent source of inspiration. He often shares interesting papers or books with us and discusses his insights from meetings or academic conferences, generously sharing his knowledge.

What do you find most exciting about your research?  

In research, the most exciting aspect is not the number of articles published or achievements attained, but the discovery of many different phenomena each time experiments are conducted. Seeing the microstructure for the first time through an instrument such as SEM (scanning electron microscopy) and confocal microscopy is particularly fascinating.  

What are you most proud of?  

I am proud to be part of Professor McClements’s lab. During this time, I have had the opportunity to work with many remarkable individuals, including Hualu "Lu" Zhou (assistant professor of food chemistry at the University of Georgia), and PhD candidate Xiaoyan Hu. I am very grateful for their support and encouragement.  

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

Research at UMass Amherst has truly opened my eyes, significantly increasing my confidence and excitement about learning. Taking classes such as food chemistry and food engineering greatly sparked my interest in developing new ideas for my projects. Moreover, participating in an exchange program at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, a leading institution for food science, offered an incredible opportunity. Presenting on the topic of the texture of plant-based foods in a class there led to highly engaging conversations with classmates and professors. Everyone was genuinely interested, asked insightful questions, and prompted me to think differently.  

What are your plans for the future?  

Looking ahead, I'm excited to continue my academic journey in Professor McClements’s lab and pursue a 4+1 Bachelor's and Master's combined degree. Beyond that, I'm considering applying to a PhD program to further deepen my expertise.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?  

UMass offers a lot of excellent programs, scholarships, and forms of assistance. These include the No. 1-ranked food science doctoral program, numerous study abroad exchange programs, various research opportunities, the William Lee Science Impact Program, and comprehensive academic advising services. Furthermore, the faculty and staff are exceptionally friendly and always eager to help students improve. I am very grateful for these invaluable resources.

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