Imagine drinking Tabasco sauce and thinking it tasted like a sugary glaze, or drinking a bitter beer that your taste buds are certain is chocolate. Imagine having a magic pill that could turn lemons into candy. Well, you don’t have to imagine. Like a magical treat straight out of Willy Wonka’s candy factory, the berry known as “miracle fruit” has the odd ability to rewire the way the tongue perceives bitter and sour flavors for up to two hours after consumption. The fruit has been growing in popularity in the US as the guest of honor at bizarre soirees known as "flavor tripping parties" where tasters eat the strange little fruit and then consume sour and bitter foods to experience the oddity of how their tongue transforms the flavors in a reality-defying fashion.
While miracle fruit is practically unheard of in the US, it is quite common in other countries. In Japan some restaurant will serve patrons low calorie desserts made from healthy (though unappetizing) ingredients. After diners pop a single miracle fruit, these yucky dishes become sumptuously divine. The miracle fruit is a dieters dream come true, and now the US is starting to catch on.
Although in the US, the miracle fruit has so far been more about experimental fun than health. The New York Times recently reported on a “flavor tripping” party in their dining and wine section. Held in Queens last week, partygoers “tripped out” on strange flavors rather than on narcotics. The popularity of this “taste bud teasing” berry is steadily growing a cult following. The base flavor of the food remains, but all bitterness and sourness is removed. A lemon still tastes like a lemon, for example, but like a sweet candy version of lemon without the pucker inducing sourness. Linda Bartoshuk, a scientist at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste says there are no known dangers associated with eating miracle fruit.
So, where does this strange fruit come from, and how does it work? The Miracle Fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum) was first documented by an explorer during a 1725 excursion to West Africa, where local tribes picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before meals. The berry itself is lightly sweet with an unremarkable flavor, but what gives the berries its strange flavor twisting property is an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, known as “miraculin”. This molecule binds to the tongue's taste buds, causing anything bitter and sour that is consumed afterwards to taste sweet. This effect generally lasts between thirty minutes to two hours.
Technically the Miracle Fruit is not a sweetener, it’s a simply a “taste-bud tricker”. Attempts have been made to create a sugar substitute from the fruit, particularly with diabetics in mind, but those attempts have ended in failure amid accusations that the FDA was catering to the sugar industry, which supposedly feared a loss in business that could potentially be caused by a drop in the need for sugar. Similar arguments are noted for FDA's regulation on the natural sweetener stevia, which is required to be labeled as a "dietary supplement" instead of a "sweetener" in spite of the fact that it works well as a sugar substitute.
Controversy and conflicts of interest over sugar substitutes is nothing new for the FDA. Aspartame (also known as Nutrasweet or Equal) is perhaps the most famous example of blatant special interests overriding science. When Donald Rumsfeld was CEO of Searle, the conglomerate that manufactured aspartame, he was frustrated that the FDA wouldn’t approve his sugar substitute. So what did he do? He fired the FDA Commissioner. Conveniently, Rumsfield was on President Reagan's transition team, where he only waited a single day after the new president was in office to oust Jere E. Goyan from his position as FDA Commissioner. Goyan had refused to approve the use of aspartame due to studies documenting increase of cancers in rats. Rumsfeld appointed Arthur Hull Hayes in his stead, who in spite of the FDA’s Board of Inquiry (which found aspartame to be unsafe), overruled Goyan’s ban and approved Aspartame. Hayes then embarked on a lucrative career working for the PR Agency of the manufacturer. Aspartame is now used in Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke, tabletop packets, and countless other foods in spite of reputable studies linking it to serious health risks including the development of cancerous tumors.
Miracle fruit, on the other hand, is considered completely safe to eat, with no known side effects, other than the “flavor tripping” ones, of course. While it’s anyone’s guess if miraculin will eventually be converted into a commercial sugar substitute, there are ways to experience its naturally transforming effects in the meantime. Small vendors sell the berries directly over the Internet in original form, or as freeze-dried granules/tablets, which gives it a longer shelf life than the fresh fruit. The tablets and granules must be sucked on, since the effect comes only from direct contact between miraculin and the tongue. To get the effect from fresh fruit you place the berry in your mouth and scrape the pulp off the seed with your teeth, and then swirl the paste around in your mouth for about a minute. Then voila, all that is bitter becomes sweet.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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