History and Potential Uses of the Miracle Berry

berryThe fruit, formally known as Synsepalum dulcificum is native to West Africa, and has been consumed there for centuries. The berries make sour foods taste sweet thanks to the protein Miraculin. The protein binds to the taste buds on the tongue, and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes into contact with acids. As a result lemons, hot sauce, and even tequila will taste much sweeter when ingested with the miracle fruit. In the 1970s there was an attempt at a commercial use of the Miraculin protein as a natural sugar alternative. The company behind the commercialization originally intended to use the extract as a way to let diabetics and cancer patients experience sweetness when they otherwise could not ingest sugar. However, after laboratory testing of Miraculin-sweetened popsicles versus ones sweetened with standard sugar had children choosing the Miraculin ones, investors saw a much larger potential market for the berry beyond niche medical cases.  Unfortunately, for reasons that are largely unknown, the FDA turned against the Miraculin project in the mid 1970s, and ruled that while the berry can be ingested, its extract could not be used as a food additive.  Since then a variety of artificial sweeteners have risen to dominate the US market, leading to myriad heath issues. With the FDA refusing to budge on its Miraculin ruling, the future of the fruit is uncertain. However, it is a food that shows great promise, and warrants further investigation beyond recreational use.

The Miracle Berry Experience

The miracle berry, when introduced to the human mouth, transduces all sour flavors into sweet ones, as depicted in the diagram below. This is due the protein within, aptly named miraculin, which binds to the taste receptors on one’s tongue, inhibiting your ability to taste sour. The result? Lemons now taste like Chik-fil-A Lemonade. Limes are sweet as can be. Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar? It might as well be a desert wine, with the natural complexities coming forward without any of the sour bite.  At the exhibit, we featured lemons, limes, granny smith apples, goat cheese, sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar. All of these were a big hit, but the star of the show was most definitely the lemons.

However, it should be noted that while miraculin changes your tongue’s perception of sour, the back of your throat and your stomach will still recognize these foods as sour and in order to fully appreciate the effect, one should keep the food/liquid in the front of the mouth and swallow quickly. Also, be careful not to overindulge. As tempting as it may be to dive right in to the smorgasbord with abandon, if you consume too much at once a stomach ulcer could develop. So, as always, Taste Responsibly.

Miraculin Mechanism of Action

A link to a WUVA article about the Transduction exhibit featuring the miracle berry may be found here.

Report by Joseph Woodlief (history) and Andrew Jones (experience).