Europeans visiting West Africa in the 1700s noticed that locals would chew the fruit of the shrub Synsepalum dulcificum, widely referred to now as the ‘miracle fruit’, just before meals.
After eating the fruit, sour foods taste deliciously sweet.1 Lemons become “as sweet as candy”, while vinegar has been described as resembling apple juice, and tabasco sauce as taking on the flavour of “doughnut glaze”.2
Most rate the taste of the miracle fruit itself as somewhat bland—one sampler likened it to “a less flavorful cranberry”. But its power to make food seem sweet without any added sugar has piqued the interest of restaurants and food processors with an eye to servicing calorie-conscious dieters, or those with diabetes.3,4
The chemical key to the fruit’s ‘miraculous’ power is miraculin, which is abundant in the fleshy pulp around the seed. Miraculin is a glycoprotein which, when a miracle fruit is chewed, binds to the tongue’s taste buds. Under acidic conditions, miraculin supercharges the sweetness receptors in the tongue. Now they respond much more strongly to anything that normally binds to the sweetness receptors, including artificial sweeteners.5 During the next hour the sweetness receptors go into overdrive, such that things that normally taste acidic now taste sweet (due to the presence of some sugars even in acidic foods).
Considering the chemistry of miraculin, plus all that has to happen to produce the fruit that contains it, and the incredible interaction with human taste buds, ‘miracle fruit’ is a useful reminder that the origin of plants and their chemistry was no accident. As the Bible says, it was God’s miraculous power that brought plants and their fruit into the world—the Garden of Eden had plants that were pleasing to the eye, and “good for food” (Genesis 2:9, 3:6). The miracle fruit is ‘good for food’ in a way that many would never have expected.
References and notes
- Fowler, A., The miracle berry, bbc.co.uk, 28 April 2008. Return to text.
- Farrell, P., and Bracken, K., A tiny fruit that tricks the tongue, nytimes.com, 28 May 2008. Return to text.
- McCurry, J., Miracle berry lets Japanese dieters get sweet from sour, theguardian.com, 25 November 2005. Return to text.
- In the USA in the 1970s, hopes of commercializing a miraculin extract as a sugar substitute were dampened by the Food and Drug Administration declaring it a ‘food additive’. Return to text.
- Koizumi, A., and 9 others, Human sweet taste receptor mediates acid-induced sweetness of miraculin, PNAS 108(40):16819–16824, 2011. Return to text.