Flavor Tripping and the Wonders of the Miracle Berry

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat strawberry lemonade you just tasted? It was actually lemon and hot sauce. The chocolate shake you just drank? Guinness mixed with lemon sorbet. Call it flavor hallucinating, call it a taste illusion, call it whatever you want—you are flavor tripping. Remember that red fruit you ate just a few minutes ago, before your world was flipped upside down? Well it was not just any fruit: it was the miracle berry. And as you enjoy your wild ride, that red berry is carrying out some complex biochemical functions.

While unknown to the Western world for quite some time, the miracle berry has been utilized since at least the 18th century when a European explorer, Chevalier des Marchais, came across West African tribes eating the berry before they ate their meals.6,7 The berry would cause sour foods, such as palm wine or gruel, to taste sweeter and more flavorful. This miraculous characteristic, however, remained an enigma until the 20th century when the berry started to gain popularity due to a resurfacing of the curiosity in not only its flavor-changing properties, but also its economic potential as a sugar-substitute.

Miracle berries do not act as a sweetener; instead of adding sweetness, they contain a protein that can make certain foods taste sweeter by masking the sour taste. The protein, rather fittingly called “miraculin,” binds to the sweet receptors on the tongue, but does not activate them at neutral pH, from about 6.5 and 7.4.1 Miraculin only activates the sweetness receptors in acidic conditions,  so when pH levels are between 4.8 and 6.5 the protein exhibits its characteristics dramatically.5 Interestingly, miraculin can also repress the sweetness receptors on the tongue; the sweet taste of the artificial sweetener aspartame in neutral pH conditions is muted by miraculin,1 but in slightly acidic conditions the effects of the sweetener magnify significantly.5 Miraculin binds strongly to the sweet taste receptors so it has the ability to activate and deactivate the receptors multiple times to prolong the effect for about an hour.5 However, be warned that foods only taste differently, and the acidic properties of sour foods are still there despite the seeming sweetness.

Although much progress has been made in understanding the mechanisms behind the miracle berry’s curious traits, there remain some barriers to mass-producing a miracle “sweetener”. In the 1960s, a biomedical postgraduate student, Robert Harvey, came across the berry and immediately saw an opportunity: since the berry contained almost no calories, and it did not leave an aftertaste, it would be the perfect product for combating obesity and diabetes.3 Harvey established the Miralin Company to grow the berries, and extract the miraculin in laboratories. In blind taste tests, products enhanced with miraculin beat out competitors that used other sweeteners.

The night before the company’s official launch in 1974, the FDA turned against the product and labeled it as an “additive”, which meant it would have to undergo several additional years of testing. The poor economic conditions of the time meant that the Miralin Company could not stay afloat, and soon after, the company declared bankruptcy.3 Before the FDA decision, Harvey claimed he was followed home, and that the same car drove by the company’s offices while taking photographs. In one instance, the main FDA file was found lying open on the floor after the company’s office had been ransacked.  The Sugar Association, FDA, and Calorie Control Council did not respond to questions. According to Harvey, the files released from a Freedom of Information Act request were, “the most redacted information I’ve ever seen from FOI. Everything was blacked out.”3

Despite this setback, the miracle berry industry has persisted. Without the ability to mass produce the protein and sell it, the products available are expensive when compared to sugar; one berry can cost over two dollars, compared to a five pound bag of sugar which sells for around three. Recent research suggests a possible alternative: by giving other plants the miraculin-producing gene, it may be possible to mass-produce miracle fruit, Studies have shown that tomatoes could be used as a transgenic plant for producing miraculin, with such transgenic, miraculin-containing plants could be processed, purified, and sold as a powder to be used in place of sugar.4Synsepalum_dulcificum_fruits_by_Scott_Zona

Although demand for the miracle berry is still low, it is rapidly gaining popularity.  Around the country, people host “flavor tripping” parties in which a small entry fee is charged, the partygoer receives a miracle berry or a miracle berry tablet, various sour foods like vinegar, mustard, beer, or chesses are consumed. 2 In Chicago, Homaro Cantu, a chef popularized by his innovative take on food and willingness to embrace science in the kitchen, has opened a restaurant called iNG, an abbreviation for “imagining New Gastronomy,” which serves dishes that utilize the miracle berry.8 Additionally, his book “The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook” offers numerous sugarless recipes utilizing the taste-altering phenomenon of miraculin.

Furthermore, the potential health applications of the berry are many. It can be used to eliminate sugar in diets, thus reducing rates of obesity and type two diabetes. Cancer patients who lose their appetite due to chemotherapy could consume the berry and once again enjoy food. Chef Cantu looks at an even bigger picture: for a week, he survived on nothing but the miracle berry, and whatever weeds, leaves, and grass he found in his backyard. “Much nutritious, wild vegetation is mowed under or tossed into the garbage because humans do not find it palatable,” according to chef Cantu.8 The berry might allow people to find new sources of food, and in doing so, pave the way for healthier diets and reduced world hunger.

Recent advancements have sparked a hope for resurgence in the miracle berry industry. One company, “mberry,” produces and sells miracle berries and tablets made from the berries.7 While the product is currently not cheap, greater research and popularization could result in a breakthrough that reduces its price. Unfortunately, bureaucratization and the lobbying power of the sugar industry hinder the progression towards mass production of the berry and its biochemical derivatives; however, increased awareness of the berry could result in greater public demand. This berry has the potential to have a huge, beneficial impact on society in a way that is nothing short of a miracle.

References:

1. Brown, Mark. “Miracle Berry’s Sour-Sweet Mystery Cracked.” Wired. Last modified September 27, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/09/sweet-sour-berry/.
2. Farrell, Patrick, and Kassie Bracken. “A Tiny Fruit That Tricks the Tongue.” New York Times. Last modified May 28, 2008. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/dining/28flavor.html?_r=0.
3. Fowler, Adam. “The Miracle Berry.” BBC News. Last modified April 28, 2008. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7367548.stm.
4. Hiwasa-Tanase, Kyoko, Tadayoshi Hirai, Kazuhisa Kato, Narendra Duhita, and Hiroshi Ezura. “From Miracle Fruit to Transgenic Tomato: Mass Production of the Taste-Modifying Protein Miraculin in Transgenic Plants.” Springer. Last modified December 8, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://link.springer.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/article/10.1007/s00299-011-1197-5/fulltext.html.
5. Koizumi, Ayako, Asami Tsuchiya, Ken-ichiro Nakajima, Keisuke Ito, Tohru Terada, Akiko Shimizu-Ibuka, Loïc Briand, Tomiko Asakura, Takumi Misaka, and Keiko Abe. “Human Sweet Taste Receptor Mediates Acid-Induced Sweetness of Miraculin.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Last modified August 30, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/40/16819.full.pdf+html?sid=b206f91f-df90-4dbd-a111-541b4da556d0.
6. Mayhew, Lance J. “Do You Believe in Magic?” Imbibe. Last modified February 2008. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://www.imbibemagazine.com/Miracle-Fruit.
7. Mberry. “Miracle Berry History.” mberry. Last modified 2012. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://mberry.us/miracle/history.
8. Weiner, Debra. “Chef Hopes Miracle Berry Becomes the Sweet Taste of the City and Worlds Beyond.” New York Times. Last modified February 10, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/us/11cncberry.html?_r=0.

Photo Credit: Hamale Lyman. “Photo of Miracle Berry.” Wikimedia Commons. Last modified October 2010.
Photo Credit: scott.zona. “Synsepalum Dulcificum Fruits.” Wikimedia Commons. Last modified January 2012.

Matthew Janigian is a first year student at Emory University majoring in Economics and Philosophy.  Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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