The Miracle Berry Could Be a Miracle
May 11, 2009 | The HWNTeam | Cutting Edge
image by: Hamale Lyman
The miracle berry really is a bit miraculous in its effect and is certainly a good bit of fun as well. Ultimately it may even turn out to be beneficial to both dieters and diabetics
The miracle berry has become the object of cult obsession these days, particularly in cities such as New York City, where people hold taste tripping parties based on the fruit's properties. The berry itself comes from a small shrubby plant native to West Africa.
The bright red miracle berry is ¾ inch to 1 inch long and oblong shaped. One of its primary active ingredients is a glycoprotein named miraculin. Miraculin binds to taste receptors in the tongue, “tricking” them into experiencing acidic tastes as sweet tastes. Lemons, for example, taste like lemon candy. Miraculin’s masking effect on taste buds is temporary, typically lasting 30 minutes or so. To experience the miraculin effect, a person either scrapes some of the pulp and seed away from the fruit and chews it or takes miraculin extract in powder or pill form.
The general notion is that miracle berries are completely safe. However, there still is lingering concerns about safety, yet people in West Africa have been consuming the berries for centuries with no anecdotally reported ill effects.
The miracle berry was first described by a French cartographer Chevalier des Marchais whose 1725 trip to West Africa included documenting native foods. He found that the West African native diet comprised a few basic foods, none of them sweet. Soups, bread and fermented palm beer and wine were all extremely sour. He found that Synsepalum dulcificum, the scientific name for the Miracle Berry plant, was commonly used by West African tribes to enhance the taste of their food.
In the 1960s, Robert Harvey, a biomedical postgraduate student, learned about the miracle berry and immediately understood the magnitude of its potential uses. Harvey founded the Miralin Company to grow the berry in Jamaica and Puerto Rico, extract its active ingredient in laboratories in Hudson, Massachusetts, and market it across the United States. At first, Harvey aimed his products at diabetics. He was spurred on by the commercial value of a non-harmful ingredient that could make diet foods taste better and possibly become a substitute for other artificial sugars that were both less effective and left a strong aftertaste. 1
Harvey worked closely with the FDA during this period with the expectation that the FDA would list miraculin under the heading of “generally considered to be safe” based on its West African history. Inexplicably, on the eve of Harvey’s launch of the product in 1974, the FDA issued a ruling that labeled the berry extract as a food additive which meant that years of testing would be required before the product could be sold in the United States. Many believe that the powerful sugar lobby played a role in preventing miracle berry extract from entering the marketplace to compete with both sugar and artificial sugars. Harvey’s company folded and the miracle berry returned to relative obscurity until recently.
Today, the miracle berry is viewed as a bit of a party novelty. Berry aficionados organize tasting parties that include one berry per partygoer and a buffet table full of interesting foods to try such as sour pickles, vinegar, beer, limes, grapefruit and so on. New York City residents have become particularly drawn to the taste tripping party.2
The altered tastes are not always predictable. Some foods taste great, some are unaffected and others are spoiled by miraculin’s transforming powers. Google the fruit to find lots of suggestions for foods to try with it and foods to stay away from. Internet writers note that:3
- Grapefruit – candy
- Honey Dew – brings out the soft subtle flavors
- Cantaloupe – like honey dew, one time with miracle fruit and you’re a fan of these fruits for life
- Granny Apple – best apple of your life
- Strawberries – makes bad berries good; right off the vine good
- Broccoli – amazingly the cooked stems taste like artichoke hearts
- Radish – no difference in taste or intensity
- Coconut – has no taste
- Goat’s cheese - tastes like cream cheese frosting
- Ketchup tastes like marmalade
- Tomato concentrate is even sweeter than ketchup
- Plain yogurt tastes like a good fruit yogurt. No additives needed, phenomenal for a diet
- Tabasco sauce – tastes like donut glaze
Interestingly, one of the problems with using the miracle berry to sweeten very acidic foods is that by masking the acidity and making the food much more appealing, some people have experienced mouth sores and gastrointestinal problems from ingesting too much acid. One side note on usage – because miraculin is a protein, it breaks down when heated so its properties are destroyed by cooking. So, your use of the miracle berry is limited to ingesting some before eating the food with a taste you want to alter.
Could the miracle berry also turn out be a big help for dieters, diabetics and even chemo patients? Some say yes. Turning good-for-you fruits like lemons and grapefruits into candy-like treats and transforming a sour Granny Smith apple into the best apple of your life could really help people stick to eating regimens that are otherwise difficult to tolerate. Similarly, healthier goat cheese (lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than cream cheese) gets a major taste boost from miraculin so that it tastes like cream cheese. Cottage cheese reportedly tastes like cake filling which would certainly boost its standing as a “diet food”.
And according to Chef Homaro Cantu of Chicago's Moto and iNG restaurants, “the interesting thing about the miracle berry in chemo patients is that it actually straightens out their taste buds, whereas for you and I, it blocks our bitter and sour receptors, for them, it straightens them out to taste food as it normally tastes".4
The most difficult part of the miracle berry phenomenon is obtaining the berries. A cottage industry has grown up around growing the plant and supplying berries to those with a taste for the unusual. The fruit does not travel well, becoming unusable after only a few days, so most people obtain the berries by overnight shipments from southern growers or by purchasing berry extract in powder or pill form. The extraction process preserves the berry’s taste transforming feature but, because it’s an expensive process, the pills or powder are pricey. The same is true for the berries.
While you can find the miracle berry or its extract online, you will pay a handsome price, $2-3 per berry and over $1 per extract pill. No one has yet figured out how to grow, process and distribute miracle berries at a commercially viable price.5,6
If you try it and get hooked on them, make a try at growing your own for a low-cost, high quality supply. It’s possible to buy miracle berry seed and grow your own but be warned that this is not an easy plant to cultivate. The shrubby plant that produces the miracle berry is quite delicate and requires a warm controlled environment for best production.You might also try a thermoplanter, a root warming planter that will provide both the warmth and the humidity the plant needs to make the growing process less rigorous.
In addition the seeds take weeks to germinate and only about 25% of the seeds actually do germinate. The plant starts producing fruit after about two years. The other choice is to start with a plant from a nursery. Google “buy miracle berry plant” for links to nurseries.
The Bottom Line
The miracle berry really is a bit miraculous in its effect and is certainly a good bit of fun as well. Ultimately it may even turn out to be beneficial to both dieters and diabetics as well as chemotherapy patients. It remains to be seen!
Published May 11, 2009, updated June 2, 2012
- Fowler A, The Miracle Berry, BBC News, April 2008
- Farrell P, A Tiny Fruit That Tricks the Tongue, The New York Times, May 28, 2008
- Miracle Fruit, Recueilli, March 30, 2007
- Miracle' pill takes the bitter with the sweet, Eatocracy, CNN, November 28, 2011
- Miracle Berry - the New Indulgence,
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