The Miracle Fruit

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.

Miracle fruit, a native to West Africa, has the unique ability to sweeten the most acidic and sour of foods.

The berries themselves are fairly bland, but just one chewed liberally will coat the taste buds with enough miraculin, an active glycoprotein molecule found in the fruit, to make all acidic and sour foods you put in your mouth taste like the sweetest fruit imaginable.

The effect lasts for for thirty minutes to two hours, and during that time you can chew a lemon and experience it as sweet ambrosia instead of the normal mouth-puckering sour taste you're used to.

The miraculin distorts the shape of the tongue's sweetness receptors "so that they become responsive to acids, instead of sugar and other sweet things"(1), though no one's quite sure how it does this.

Miracle fruit grows on evergreen bushes that can reach 20 feet in height in their native West Africa, though less than half of this in cultivation elsewhere.

It is not a particularly prolific plant, and generally produces two small crops per year after the rainy season. The berries are red, ovular, a little over an inch long and filled with a seed.

The History of Miracle Fruit

The first European to come across the miracle fruit -also called the magic berry or flavor berry- was Chevalier des Marchais, a French cartographer who spent much of his life exploring the world.

He noticed that the natives of West Africa would pop the berries into their mouths before meals, which frequently consisted of guddoe, or stale bread gruel, kankies, or acidulated grain bread, beer, and fermented palm wine, all of which were sour.

A serious attempt to commercialize the fruit was made in the 1970s, and several companies tried to extract miraculin into various food products and pills to increase shelf life, with a deal of success.

The now-defunct Miralin Corporation developed sour Popsicles coated with miraculin extract, which was aparently a huge -and sugarless- hit with kids.

People got excited for a future in which sweets didn't do much harm to the waistline and diabetics could enjoy deserts.

Then thinks got a bit shady.

Cars started following Miralin executives home from work. Someone skilled enough to disable the headquarter's alarm system broke in and rifled through their files.

A few months later the FDA, citing no precedent or reason, banned miraculin, despite several studies showing it to be safe. (2)

Conspiracy theorists believe that the very profitable sugar industry put weight on the FDA (3). The FDA denies this, but refuses to release its files on the subject. Maralin closed its doors soon after.

The fruit itself remains unbanned, but has not become commercially popular because it does not remain fresh long after being picked.

Recently, though, the New York Times writes that the the berry has become a hit at hip New York City gatherings called flavor tripping parties. (4)

People chase the berries with all manner of sour foods, enjoying the sweet lies their tongues are telling their brain.

Health Concerns

So essentially we've got a berry that you wouldn't want to eat on its own flavor merits, but which turns otherwise unpalatable food quite tasty.

The problem is that there's often a reason food doesn't taste especially good to us- it's harmful. "We used the miraculin tablets, then started trying every sour thing we could find, said Göran Hellekant, a miraculin researcher and professor of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Minnesota. "I remember straight lemon juice as being pretty good. I also tried vinegar and sauerkraut juice...The next morning we awakened with ulcers in our mouths, barely able to talk. Sure, these things tasted sweet, but they were still highly acidic."

If you're eating a healthy raw food diet you know miracle fruit isn't going to be a staple. The food that's best for us also tastes pretty great - raw fruits and vegetables, and just because your taste buds have been tricked into thinking Tabasco sauce is bliss itself, doesn't mean that it's going to be good for you.

Asked for an opinion on the fruit, Dr. Douglas Graham said, "Miracle fruit is a tiny bush, doesn't produce a lot of fruit, and doesn'tdo so often. The fact that it exists is interesting, but not significant, I don't believe, in the scheme of nutrition." (5)

Sources:

(1) Rowe, Aaron (2006-12-07). "Super Lettuce Turns Sour Sweet", Wired Magazine.
(2) AD Kinghorn and DD Soejarto. Sweetening Agents of plant-origin. CRC Crit. Rev. Plant Sci. 1986, 4, 79-120.
(3) "Sweet and sour tale of the miracle berry", The First Post (2008-04-28).
(4) Farrell, Patrick; Kassie Bracken (2008-05-28). "A Tiny Fruit That Tricks the Tongue", The New York Times.
(5) Vegsource Forum; December 4, 2008, "Re: Dr. Graham- Thoughts On Miracle Fruit"



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