Bizarre fruit could offer alternative to sugar
Have you ever heard of a “flavor-tripping” party? Despite what it sounds like, it has nothing to do with drugs. All it involves is a small red berry and a bunch of lemons and vinegar.
For those of you wondering what the heck this is all about, you’re not alone. Despite its effects having been known for almost 300 years, very few people know about the aptly named miracle berry. This small, tart, cranberry-like fruit is unremarkable when eaten on its own—bitter and unimpressive, even. However, if something sour is consumed after it, the moniker’s meaning becomes obvious.
The miracle berry changes the way you taste things. In particular, sour becomes sweet.
It’s not truly a miracle. As you probably guessed, there is a perfectly sound scientific explanation for this. And like the berry, it only makes things sweeter.
See, the miracle berry contains a protein called miraculin. This protein interacts with the taste buds when it comes in contact with them. Specifically, it binds to those responsible for recognizing sweet flavors. Once it is bound to the flavor receptors, it rewires them, so to speak. Under normal conditions, the receptors are unchanged, and typically sweet things taste exactly like they had before.
Under acidic conditions, though—and keep in mind that sour flavors are a result of increased acidity—the receptors become supercharged. They do not recognize sour flavors for what they are. Instead, the hyperactive receptors perceive sour as sweet, and they tell the brain that a lot of sugar is being imbibed.
The brain induces the same rush of endorphins that real sugar causes, and the person consuming the sour item gets to enjoy that pleasant, happy feeling that comes with eating something sweet.
In other words, biting into a lemon can be as delightful as spooning mandarin oranges out of syrup. Grapefruit could be the next best thing to melon. Tabasco sauce could be a pleasantly warm treat rather than a hot and sour condiment. Why eat candy when you can trick your taste buds into appreciating things much healthier for you?
This is a great party trick, to be sure. But believe it or not, there are real applications for this, too.
The first and foremost is, of course, as a sweetener. There is no denying that sugar has an allure all its own, nor can one suggest that it can be fully replaced. However, there are those out there who have difficulty maintaining a reasonable blood sugar. For a diabetic, the struggle between flavor and sugar consumption is particularly dire. Too much sugar can lead to significant damage.
Additionally, added sugar has been blamed for a good amount of the obesity epidemic. Over-consumption of these sugars has also been linked to heart disease, as well as increasing the risk for stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other dangerous conditions.
If used to increase the perception of sweetness in food, the miracle berry could significantly reduce these risks in the general population. In fact, a company called Miralin tried to do just that in the latter half of the 20th century. Due to a number of factors, the company folded before it was able to put its products on the market, and no substantial efforts have been made since.
The miracle berry is back in the public eye again, though. In fact, it’s been reported that Beaker and Flask, a Portland restaurant, offered drinks made with the fruit, though inquiries to the restaurant went unanswered. In New York, the berry has become part of the party scene with the aforementioned flavor-tripping parties.
But this needs to go further than that. The miracle berry should be more readily and commercially available, especially for those most at-risk for diabetes and obesity. Where Miralin previously failed, a new enterprise needs to form. A form of sweetener should be made from the miracle berry and made into a mainstream commodity.
Presently, the berry is available either freeze-dried or fresh for $2 a berry—a hefty price. The miraculin has been isolated and synthesized into a dissolvable tablet as well. With a little more effort, we could easily create an affordable alternative to added sugars.
If we can manage that, it will make for a much sweeter future indeed.