The Sweetness of Discovery: Miracle Fruit Finally Understood
How often do you eat lemons whole? Would you eat them more often if they tasted like lemonade? An increasing trend in the past three years has been “flavor tripping” by means of the miracle fruit. The fruit is used mainly at parties and events specifically to eat it and taste other foods that are normally sour, sweet, and/or salty, and is not part of a normal diet.
Richardella dulfica, known as “miracle fruit” or “miracle berry,” has the power to make sour foods taste sweet and other foods transform their flavor into a candy-like saccharinity. These magical berries have long been somewhat of a culinary and scientific mystery. A team of researches from Japan and France, led by University of Tokyo’s Keiko Abe, believe that they have discovered the fruit’s sweetening secret.
The berries produce the perception of a sweet taste through a protein they contain, called miraculin. The protein has long been known to cause the effect. However, Abe’s team was the first to explain the mechanisms by which the protein affects the taste receptors to cause many fascinating flavor changes, including the ability to make “Guiness taste like a chocolate shake.”
Abe and his team determined the effect of the protein on taste receptors by testing it on cultured cells at various pH levels. The cells were treated with fluorescent molecules that glowed when the cells were activated. What the team found out through this experiment was that miraculin does not actually activate the sweet taste receptors at a normal pH level, but rather it produces an inhibitory effect. However, when the pH is lowered (is slightly acidic), the sweet taste receptors are activated, and slightly acidic foods, such as lemons and limes, end up tasting sweet.
Keiko Abe told Discovery.com that “the sweetness of miraculin at acidic pH in the mouth is the strongest of almost all the known sweeteners; this will lead to industrial use of this non-calorie sweetener.” While this could be exciting news for the food industry, a few large obstacles would need to be overcome in order to use this ingredient in food. Paul Breslin, a sensory biologist from Rutgers University, states that “since it is a protein, it probably would fall apart if heated, making it a poor candidate for baked goods anyway.” Also, the United States Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the berry’s use in food. This exciting discovery will help determine this amazing fruit’s future, but for now it will remain a party trick.
P.S. Make sure you come to The Mind and Brain Society’s Miracle Berry Tastravaganza on Wednesday, October 26th from 7 PM to 10 PM in BU Central. We will have sour, spicy, and salty foods for you to sample once you’ve eaten your miracle berry. If you want to learn more about this event and you’re a BU undergraduate student, attend The Mind and Brain Society’s Theory of Mind Discussion and General Meeting on Thursday, October 20th at 7 PM.
Miracle Fruit’s Secret Revealed – Science News
Miracle Fruit Explained – Discovery.com
Flavor Tripping Parties – NYTimes.com
Miracle Fruit Explanation – Nature