Healthy Food for All: Honors Program Alum Gives Back to the HC

“The instant ramen of the health food world” — that is what Oregon State University honors program alum Jan Matsuno set out to create when she left her traditional corporate job to build a company from scratch, right from her very own kitchen. Four years and one global pandemic later, her products have landed on […]

August 29, 2022

“The instant ramen of the health food world” — that is what Oregon State University honors program alum Jan Matsuno set out to create when she left her traditional corporate job to build a company from scratch, right from her very own kitchen. Four years and one global pandemic later, her products have landed on the shelves of 28 California stores, and Jan has found herself forming new connections in the place where it all began: at Oregon State University, with the Honors College.

“I liked food, and I liked science.”

When it came time to graduate from her Eugene-area high school and pursue a college degree, Jan felt she had two choices — keep close to home and attend the University of Oregon or head to Corvallis to start fresh at Oregon State University. Corvallis, which struck the perfect balance between the new and the familiar, won out, and Jan headed the 50 or so miles north to begin her life as an OSU honors undergraduate.

When she enrolled at Oregon State in the late 1970s, there was not yet an Honors College, which was formed in the mid-1990s. There was, though, a University Honors Program, which was established as a campus-wide opportunity in 1967, building on a longer history of honors education in specific colleges. This program, which, like the current Honors College, offered students unique courses and the chance to do a research thesis, was shut down in 1991. A new degree-granting Honors College admitted its first students in 1995.  

A food science and technology major, Jan took the opportunity presented by the honors thesis — a project she fondly remembers composing on a typewriter — to determine the brand of strawberry yogurt that was most preferred by the general public and to analyze what, exactly, made that brand’s yogurt more appealing than its competitors. Under the mentorship of Dr. Floyd Bodyfelt, she examined everything from the protein and sugar content to the colors and textures of strawberry yogurt products on the market at the time. The experience was a positive one, Jan says, and even earned her the opportunity to present at the Institute of Food Technologists annual conference — foreshadowing the successful career in food science she would build in the years that followed.

In the spring of 1979, with her thesis defense behind her, Jan was set to embark on the next phase of life. She had a choice between two promising job offers: a position with Kraft Foods in Pocatello, Idaho and one in product development with Del Monte Foods in Walnut Creek, California. For Jan, the choice was easy; having always been drawn to product development, she packed her belongings and headed to California to begin her career in the field of food science.

Over the next 17 years, Jan would work in food product development and technical service for Del Monte subsidiaries across Asia, Europe, and Central and South America before joining Safeway as their director of private label product development. During the eight years that followed, she oversaw the development of over 2,000 private label Safeway products — Safeway SELECT, Primo Taglio and O Organics®, among many others — but she eventually came to the realization that her traditional 9-5 job lacked the flexibility necessitated by her home life. At the time, she was raising three kids, twins enrolled in kindergarten and an older daughter in the third grade. She decided to leave her position with Safeway in 2005 to create her own consulting company, Mindful Food Consulting. During this time, she also developed products for a number of clients, including Patagonia Provisions, while working part time for CCD Innovation.

Then, in 2018, fueled by what she saw as a gap in the market, Jan began dreaming up a new passion project: a healthy, plant-based product that was just as easy and accessible as a packet of instant ramen.

While the specific concept was new, the idea was something she had toyed with for years. In fact, during her nearly 40-year career, she had come up with “all kinds of kooky ideas,” from nutrient-packed candy and healthy Jell-O alternatives to sugar-free muffins and heart-healthy crackers — but each time she returned to the same question: “What do people really need?” The market, she says, was — and still is — oversaturated with health-conscious beverages and snacks; what was missing was something more filling: “What people really need are healthy meals.”

“That is what Yumbini is: the instant ramen of the health world.”

So, finding herself already at home due to COVID shutdowns, Jan gave up her position with CCD Innovation to found Yumbini, a company that produces plant-based meals that are not only instant, but affordable to a wide range of consumers. “Everybody needs healthy food. Really good, really high quality, but not expensive,” she says. “I thought, ‘How can I make it as convenient, fast, easy and tasty as instant ramen?’ That is what Yumbini is: the instant ramen of the health world.” The company officially launched in April 2022 with the singular goal of making healthy eating egalitarian.

Yumbini Instant Beans and Rice

What are now 3.5 oz packets of unique, protein-packed combinations of beans and rice began as science experiments in Jan’s own kitchen, with her husband and kids acting as her initial focus group. As her family would attest, some prototypes turned out better than others (“I’m a food scientist, not a chef,” she admits), but she eventually landed on a formula that worked, and, in the fall of 2019, she conducted a sensory evaluation with approximately 50 participants that returned favorable feedback. From there she partnered with a co-packer — a company that does packaging and labeling for clients — to manufacture the product, ordered the ingredients and began building the Yumbini brand.

“You set up roadblocks in your mind, but then you find out you can do it.”

The process has been a slow one, though, with bumps in the road that have often made for a more tumultuous ride than expected: Her first co-packer backed out at the last minute, minimum order quantities were higher than anticipated and she quickly learned that marketing a product that was still under development is no easy task. Jan, however, has chosen to view these setbacks as opportunities to prove her own inner narrative wrong. “You set up roadblocks in your mind, but then you find out you can do it,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d find a co-packer who would take such a small order, but I found one. I didn’t think I’d find a store that would sell the product, but I found one. It’s like life — you just have to keep going.”

And keep going she has. Yumbini products are now available in 28 California stores and can be purchased online through a website Jan built alongside her husband and business partner, Akashi. And while she is still coming across roadblocks — the need for a new co-packer, for example — the journey has also led her to an opportunity to give back to the very place that inspired her love for food science: Oregon State University and the heir to its honors legacy, the Honors College.

Giving Back to the Honors College

In the summer of 2021, Jan met with Honors College Dean Toni Doolen and Director of Development Kellie Parker, who, upon hearing about Jan’s post-college career path, extended an invitation to speak to honors students at a virtual event. Jan gladly accepted and reconnected with her alma mater the following spring to share her experience in the food science industry and the lessons she’s learned while developing her own food line. It was during this event, she says, that she felt inspired to donate a supply of Yumbini products to the college’s Forgot Your Lunch? Program, a student-run resource that provides honors students with quick and simple food items to grab when they are in need of a bite to eat. “I just felt like I wanted to give back in some way to Oregon State and to the Honors College,” she shares. The program, which consists of a kitchen cabinet stocked with items like oatmeal, soup and sandwich supplies in the honors study lounge, is self-serve to encourage participation from students who may otherwise avoid the face-to-face interactions that come with accessing campus resources. Its mission to ensure no student is forced to tackle the school day on an empty stomach is one that aligns with Jan’s goal of making nutritious food accessible regardless of personal circumstance. “It felt really nice to be able to do that,” she says. “It’s the perfect product for the program.”

For Jan, the opportunity to get involved with the Honors College over 40 years after participating in the Oregon State honors program has felt like a homecoming — a full-circle moment that has highlighted the impact of her undergraduate experience on the course of her life and career. The college’s multidisciplinary approach, she says, not only readies students to wear many hats in the workforce, it keeps young minds open to all possibilities: “When you’re young you don’t realize how much is going to change. Things that you think are impossible now are going to be possible in the future. Try to do as many things as you can,” she says. “All those experiences that you have and the people you meet, they all come back to you later in life.”

By: Adriana Fischer, Media and Communications Representative

CATEGORIES: All Stories Alumni and Friends Features Homestories Uncategorized

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