In 1725, French explorer, cartographer, navigator, and slave-ship captain, Chevalier des Marchais noticed something incredible as he journeyed through West Africa.
In addition to charting the continent, des Marchais also took a keen interest in the native flora of the region. He noticed the Indigenous people rummaging through forest undergrowth for a particular shrub. They sought a berry, which they ingested specifically before meals.
It wasn’t acai or kale or any other superfood with magical properties, but the Africans had picked a bonafide miracle.
What Chevalier des Marchais had recorded for the first time was the miracle fruit. Other names include miracle berry, miraculous berry, and, in native languages, agbayun, taami, asaa, or, ledidi.
This berry could achieve something marvelous, but it had nothing to do with nutrition.
Instead, it offered the eater an entirely new tongue. Eat the berries, then ingest something sour, and, instead of puckering or retching, enjoy the meal!
The miracle fruit makes sour taste sweet.
The shrub on which the berry grows is Synsepalum dulcificum, a member of a family of flowering plants called Sapotaceae.
How can this berry make eating a lime or a pickle taste sweet? The secret is a glycoprotein that we named miraculin. By 1968, scientists sussed out that the protein caused the magic and started extracting it to sell in pill form. The miracle berry became a sensation, particularly at parties, where people would eat all sorts of strong, acidic, or sour foods and feel they had eaten candy.
A few outfits even attempted to employ the protein as a non-caloric sweetener. This usage, however, fell under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, as a food additive. Apparently, the corporations developing miraculin for health-conscious consumption did not have the proper funds for the years of testing required, so the idea quickly vaporized.
The miracle fruit dropped off the landscape for several decades. As with many old trends, the internet breathed new life into miraculin. Suddenly, everyone could watch Gordon Ramsay drink Guinness and think it tastes like chocolate milk (or not, he’s weird).
However, we still really did not understand why miraculin short-circuits our taste buds. The resurgence in interest brought renewed scientific scrutiny. In 2011, researchers made a breakthrough.
Miraculin binds strongly to sweet taste buds, just like most saccharine things such as sugar or aspartame. However, unlike sugar and aspartame, miraculin does not activate the buds at a neutral pH. When one adds acid, though, the miraculin gets funky, changing shape in such a way that the sweet taste buds suddenly trigger. So, when sour food enters the mouth, the shape of the protein shifts, making the food taste sweet. When the food leaves the mouth (i.e., swallowed), the protein returns to its original shape!
For up to an hour, miraculin remains bonded to the sweet taste buds, waving magic wands.
The berry itself tastes nothing like the sweetness the protein can unleash on one’s tongue. The ability for miraculin to bind so strongly to the sweet receptors on your tongue means it only imparts a slight tang, often described as something close to a raw cranberry. Even aspartame tastes bland when the receptors are repressed by miraculin. However, introduce some acid with that aspartame, and all of a sudden the artificial sweetener tastes more intensely sugary than one might imagine possible.
This protein chain is so good at binding to our buds that it does so at a clip 1 million times stronger than aspartame and 100 million times stronger than sugar!
Scientists continue to study the implications of this protein. This non-caloric method for imparting targeted tastes to humans exists naturally, so the potential exists for dietary revolutions.
Have you gone “flavor tripping”?
Though the berries are native to Western Africa and food additives might be a touchy subject to the FDA, most people can now access miracle fruit thanks to the internet.
As of publication, though we have not yet sampled these berries at The Mountains Are Calling Headquarters, our package is on the way. Some links if you want to purchase reside in the Further Reading and Exploration section below.