Miracle fruit

Miracle fruit

The Miracle Fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum) produces berries that, when eaten, cause bitter and sour foods (such as lemons and limes) consumed later to taste sweet. The berry, also known as Miracle Berry, Magic Berry, or Flavor Berry, was first documented by explorer Chevalier des Marchais during a 1725 excursion to its native West Africa. Marchais noticed that local tribes picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before meals. The plant grows in bushes up to high in its native habitat, but does not usually grow higher than ten feet in cultivation, and it produces two crops per year, after the end of the rainy season. It is an evergreen plant that produces small red berries, with flowers that are white and which are produced for many months of the year. The seeds are about the size of coffee beans.

The berry contains an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin. When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue's taste buds, causing bitter and sour foods to taste sweet. While the exact cause for this change is unknown, one hypothesis is that the effect may be caused if miraculin works by distorting the shape of sweetness receptors "so that they become responsive to acids, instead of sugar and other sweet things." This effect lasts between thirty minutes and two hours.

History

An attempt was made in the 1970s to commercialize the ability of the fruit to turn non-sweet foods into sweet foods without a caloric penalty, but ended in failure in controversial circumstances with accusations that the project was sabotaged and the research burgled by the sugar industry to prevent loss of business caused by a drop in the need for sugar. The FDA has always denied that pressure was put on it by the sugar industry, but refused to release any files on the subject. Similar arguments are noted for FDA's regulation on stevia now labeled as a "dietary supplement" instead of a "sweetener".

For a time in the 1970s, US dieters could purchase a pill form of miraculin. It was at this time that the idea of the "miraculin party" was conceived. Recently, this phenomenon has enjoyed some revival in Bacchanalian-like food tasting events, referred to as "flavor tripping parties" by some. The tasters consume sour and bitter foods, such as lemons, radishes, and beer, to experience the taste changes that occur. A blog dedicated to the phenomenon of "flavor tripping" describes the miracle fruit "like a candy Willy Wonka would have invented."

General information and cultivation

The plant grows best at a pH as low as 4.5 to 5.8, in an environment free from frost and in partial shade with high humidity. Without the use of plant hormones the seeds have a 24 % sprouting success rate. The plants first bear fruit after growing to approximately in height.

Attempts have been made to create an artificial sweetener from the fruit, with an idea of developing this for diabetics. At present, at least one company is pursuing the development of a purified version of the protein with the hopes of gaining approval.

Fruit cultivators also report a small demand from cancer patients since the fruit allegedly counteracts a metallic taste in the mouth that may be one of the many side effects of chemotherapy. However, there has been no scientific research conducted to support this claim.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Tsukuba genetically engineered lettuce to produce large amounts of miraculin. The scientists' crops resulted in 40 micrograms of miraculin per gram of lettuce leaves, which was considered a large amount. Two grams of lettuce leaves produced roughly the same amount of miraculin as in one miracle fruit berry. The researchers said others had unsuccessfully utilized bacteria, yeast and tobacco plants.

Freeze-dried form

Miracle fruit is available as freeze dried granules or in tablets - this form has a longer shelf life than fresh fruit. Tablets are made from compressed freeze dried fruit which causes the texture to be clearly visible even in tablet form.

The effect of Miracle fruit is made possible by contact with the tongue, not through digestion. For this reason, tablets must be allowed to dissolve in the mouth. The most pronounced effect can be achieved by coating the entire tongue in a paste of Miracle fruit for up to 30 seconds.

The tablets are currently very difficult to get outside of Asia, where they are popular among diabetics and dieters. However, in many countries they can be purchased on the Internet.

Drawbacks

Because miraculin is a protein, it cannot be cooked, as when heated, proteins denature and lose their potency. Additionally, its effects might be considered dangerous because while Miraculin does change the perception of taste, it does not change the food's chemistry. Therefore, the mouth is still vulnerable to the high acidity of some foods, such as lemon juice, which may result in oral ulcers if eaten in large quantities.

References

See also

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