The miracle fruit

A fruit straight from the mind of Willy Wonka

Photo provided by miraclefrutifarm.com

Ricardo Golac, Staff Writer

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What small fruit has the color of a cranberry, the shape of an almond, tastes like a flavorless gummy, and has “magical properties”? Well, the miracle fruit of course! This exotic little berry from Africa rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.

The plant, Synsepalum dulcificum, is known for its berry that, when eaten, causes sour foods (such as lemons and limes) subsequently consumed to taste sweet. Lemons lost their zing and taste like candy, oranges become overwhelmingly sweet, and hot sauce that usually burns the tongue tastes like honey barbecue sauce that scorches as it trickles down the throat. This effect is due to miraculin, a natural sugar substitute only found in the miracle fruit. Common names for this species and its berry include miracle fruit, miracle berry, miraculous berry, sweet berry, and in West Africa, where the species originates, agbayun, taami, asaa, and ledidi.

The berry itself has a low sugar content and a mildly sweet tang, although when I had one it tasted like Haribo gummy with very little flavor. It contains the glycoprotein molecule miraculin, with some trailing carbohydrate chains. When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue’s taste buds, causing sour foods to taste sweet. At a neutral pH, miraculin binds and blocks the receptors, but at low pH, which results from the ingestion of sour foods, miraculin binds proteins and becomes able to activate the sweet receptors of the tongue, resulting in the perception of sweet taste. This effect lasts until the protein is washed away by saliva (up to about 30 minutes).

The berry has been used in West Africa since at least the 18th century when the European explorer, Chevalier des Marchais, provided an account of its use there. Marchais, who was searching West Africa for many different fruits in a 1725 excursion, noticed that local people picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before meals. In the 1970s in the USA, an attempt was made to commercialize the fruit for its ability to turn unsweet foods into sweet foods without a caloric penalty, but ended in failure when the FDA classified the berry as a food additive.

Besides being a cool party trick, researchers at the University of Miami have been looking into whether or not the berry can restore the appetite of cancer patients whose chemotherapy treatments have left them with dulled taste buds. Normally for cancer patients who have had their taste buds affected, food tastes metallic and bland and becomes repulsive. The berry, however, may help cancer patients in turning the normally bitter food they eat into something much more palatable.

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