February 7, 2009

'Miracle berry' makes tastebuds take a wild trip

January 16, 2009

Imagine biting into a lemon, and instead of tasting sour, it tastes like lemonade. How about drinking vinegar that tastes like apple juice?

It’s all possible thanks to a small, red, olive-sized berry from West Africa known as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum). The desire to try this unusual fruit is spreading across North America and “taste-tripping” parties are growing in popularity across the U.S.

How the berry works is not entirely understood. It’s thought the aptly-named glycoprotein, miraculin, blocks the shape of the sweet receptors on the taste buds. This allows sour and acidic things to bind to these sweet receptors, completely changing the taste.

The effect is, well, miraculous. Pure lemon extract tastes like the sweetest lemonade, sour cream tastes like rich whipped cream and sugar has no taste at all.

Once the berries are picked from the shrub, they begin to rot immediately. Fresh berries can be ordered over the internet from various growers across the U.S., but will probably cost you between two and four dollars per berry.

The freeze-dried tablets are a more economical option. A package of 10 Miracle Berry Tablets is available over the Internet and cost about $20, plus shipping.

Miracle berries are currently not approved by the FDA and Health Canada does not regulate them. Miraculin is regulated as a sweetener in Japan where scientists at the University of Tsukuba have grown modified lettuce containing the protein in order to meet the growing demand.

I decided to hold my own taste-tripping party with two friends, Matt MacLennan and Mick MacDonald.

This was my second miracle berry experience since receiving the freeze-dried tablets as a Christmas gift.

My first experience taste-tripping wasn’t exactly pleasant. The tablet performed as advertised, lemon tasted like sugary lemonade and vodka lost most of its alcohol burn.

When I grabbed and gulped a glass of what I thought was water, I wasn’t prepared for the cider-like flavor and smell of vinegar. It turned out to be white vinegar, extremely sweet-tasting white vinegar which sent me running for the nearest toilet.

To be fair, my vomit was surprisingly sweet and slightly more delicious than expected. This ended my first taste-tripping experience.

The next time around, I was more careful. We started with cottage cheese. The boys both reacted the same way. Mick described it as tasting like “brains, sugared brains.” Matt said they tasted like “cheese curds sprinkled with sugar.”

The unripe kiwi was surprisingly delicious. Matt described it as
tasting “perfectly ripe.”

The biggest crowd pleaser was definitely the sour cream. “That tastes like Cool Whip.” Mick said, “That’s crazy! I would eat that on a pie.” Matt was also delighted by the taste, describing it as “whipped cream.”

The biggest surprise for Mick was vinegar which he said “tastes like strong apple juice. If it didn’t burn so much in my stomach I could drink it just like apple juice.”

The berries made limes taste like sugary-lime penny candies and pickles and pickled beets taste like they were dusted in sugar.

About 20 minutes into the experience, Matt’s taste buds started returning to normal, reducing the effect on the last few items we tried. The effect began to wear off after 45 minutes for Mick and stayed with me for more than an hour, making the Guinness I was sipping taste more like a honey-brown beer.

The berry is old news in Japan, Thailand and its native home West Africa. In Japan, specialty restaurants use the berry to make tart, low-calorie desserts taste rich and sweet, without all the negative side-effects of sugar.

For centuries, people in West Africa have been using the berry to sweeten foods that are sour or unpalatable.

With no additives or documented adverse side effects, this product holds great promise for both dieters and diabetics who crave sweets but don’t want the extra sugar. Cancer patients swear by the berry because it takes away the unpleasant metallic aftertaste reported as a side effect of chemotherapy.

The high cost and relative scarcity of the miracle berry in Canada makes it difficult to enjoy every day. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to enjoy a delicious dessert of miraculin salad.

But, for now, I think I’ll stick to the occasional taste-trip.

Cassie Williams is The Halifax Commoner’s science columnist.

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