I’ve recently spent a lot of time researching Miracle Fruit, an African berry that, after you eat it, makes your brain perceive sour tastes as sweet instead. People have been known to chow down on limes, lemons, and grapefruit as if they were wonderful ripe peaches or something, after eating a miracle fruit, -and they enjoyed it immensely.
Debbie Elliot, an NPR correspondent, host of All Things Considered interviewed a man who is writing a book about Miracle Fruit. This interview was available only as an NPR streaming audio file, I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing it for my readers. (Jott.com helped…)
This weekend, Washington DC is showing its “softer” side. The city’s cherry blossoms are erupting into pale pink bloom. The display is the legacy of David Fairchild, a botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who introduced 20,000 exotic plants to this country. In 1910, he asked Japanese officials for the original shipment of cherry trees. A few years later, he traveled to West Africa, and brought back a magical berry. The “Miracle Fruit” as it is called, does an amazing thing to your taste buds. You pop one into your mouth and the next thing you eat tastes sweeter. A lemon becomes lemonade! A bologna sandwich: cake! Adam Leith Gollner is currently writing a book about miracle fruit, and joins us from the studio of CBC in Montreal, – Hello there! [Adam:] Hello!
[Hostess:] So scientists have been studying just how miracle fruit works that magic on our tongues, what have they been able to figure out? Well, basically after you eat a miracle fruit and that pleasant squirt of juice coats your tongue, that juice contains a fascinating protein called “Miraculin.” -Sounds like something out of superman. “Miraculin.” *chuckles* Miraculin is basically a protein, with some little sugars attached to it. Those sugars are just out of reach of the sweet receptors on your tongue, so what happens is that, in a kind of biochemical quirk, the sweet receptors keep trying to get a hold of those sugars, almost like a donkey who keeps trying to bite a carrot, -but only when you eat a sour food, -like a lemon,- can the the donkey suddenly grab the carrot. The sugar molecules pop into the sugar receptors, which sends sweetness signals to your brain and you start tasting sweetness. Does it make all food tastes sweeter? No, no, it only makes sour foods taste sweeter, so, the key that unlocks our taste receptors is sour food. So things like lemon, limes, pickles… -Pickles taste like honey after you eat Miracle Fruit. No way. Way. That is weird.
So, Describe for me the miracle fruit. Yeah they’re these little red berries that are kind of like the size of a small olive or maybe, the tip of your pinky. Where do they grow? They grow in West Africa in what was known as the gold coast and traditionally, they used it before eating some of their foods like porridges and breads and fermented palm wines that are shockingly sour. These days it isn’t used too often because its not really cultivated [there] on any scale, it grows in very inaccessible parts of the rain forest, they use it as a novelty item or a parlor trick, little kids love it, they take it before partying. It sounds like this could be a great trick to use if you were trying to lose weight, or for people who had to curb their sugar intake because they were diabetic, has anyone in the United States ever tried to market Miracle Fruit in this way?
Yes, there is an amazing story that goes back to the 1960s. The US army and the international Pharmaceutical industry figured out how the molecule works, how miraculin works, and this young visionary named Bob Harvey started a company that figured out how to synthesize miraculin, and he had millions of dollars invested in plantations all over the world, and he had developed products like a miracle fruit popsicle (that was coated in miraculin so your first lick would be miracle fruit, and then the rest of the popsicle would taste really sweet,) miracle fruit chewing gum, and a miracle fruit soft drink, and all of this stuff was 100% sugar free, but before getting regulatory approval, they started testing it on little kids, –who loved it,– but the FDA decided that, it hadn’t been proven to be safe, so they didn’t allow it to be marketed as a food additive.
Well, we found a man named Curtis Mozie in Ft. Lauderdale who grows miracle fruit in a nursery near his home, and he sent us a few berries to try, so we are going to say goodbye to you now Mr. Gollner, thanks for talking with us. Thank you Debbie. And now, the proof is in the pudding, as it were…
Debbie and two friends go on to try lemons, cheese, and coffee after eating their miracle fruits. The cheese was not tart cheese, so it didn’t change the flavor much, (nice pre-research, folks…), and the coffee, which does not have a reputation for being changed much by miraculin, tasted merely a bit sweetened. The lemons, of course, tasted very sweet, like lemonade. The food-critic type friends of hers made surprised exclamations as they ate the lemon wedges.
If you’re interested in researching Miracle Fruit, here are some great blog entries and articles to read, they are most engrossing!
- This blog entry has a great description of a tasting at a foodie’s party:
Miracle Fruit – I’m a believer! by Jacob Grier in his blog Eternal Recurrence
- The old “Sweet Lime” trick by Donna McVicar Cannon
- This article goes over a restaurant in Japan that is completely based on Miraculin: The Miracle Fruit Cafe & Update Re: Miraculin Tablets
- This is a place in Ghana where you can order Miraculin stuff from: BioResources International, Inc.
- I realize now, that this Miracle Fruit provider is the same Curtis Mozie referenced in the NPR show… Barzelay.Net: A Miracle Fruit Provider
- And here at Gothamist, an article that led me from studying the Miracle Fruit, to the Kircher Society, and the Time Fountain, I owe this article a lot: Covert Dining in New York: The Miracle Fruit
I have written to Sina Najafi, the Editor-in-Chief of Cabinet Magazine, referenced in the article linked above, asking her where she got the canned Miracle Fruit from. All my other research on MF does not even hint that canning Miracle Fruits works, or is a good way to preserve Miraculin, and I find that very confusing. But apparently it works just fine. Very intriguing. Anyone who can help me locate this canned Miracle Fruit gets a cookie. A big one.
- Ed Felten, in his blog Freedom to Tinker, documents a tasting he had with some friends/students, and he had this to say: “The grapefruit was stunning, perhaps the best-tasting fruit I have ever eaten.” I’ve heard a similar quote, from a person who doesn’t even like grapefruit.
- And this is the article that started it all! I am interested in exotic fruits of all kinds, so I read this webpage with wide eyes, and heard of Miracle Fruit for the first time. Fruit Tree Descriptions and Photos