By all accounts, Americans' sweet tooth is insatiable. The USDA estimates that we consume 150 pounds of sugar per person per year, contributing to rising rates of diabetes and obesity. High consumption of sugar has also been found to compromise the immune system. Though artificial sweeteners such as aspartame may mollify our sweet cravings without unwanted calories or an unfavorable impact on blood sugar and immunity, many have reported unpleasant side effects associated with their consumption. As such, discovering a sweetener that is both natural and low in calories would be regarded as nothing short of a modern miracle.
A cranberry-like fruit from West Africa that makes sour foods taste sweet may just fit the bill. Known as miracle fruit, the "magic berry" contains a protein known as miraculin which binds to sweet receptors on the tongue. When it comes into contact with acids found in sour foods such as lemons, miraculin acts as a sweetness inducer, changing the taste experience completely. Tart citrus will taste like candy, sharp cheeses like cheesecake, and bitter beer like milkshake. The berry itself has a low sugar content and a mildly sweet tang.
Miracle fruit has been consumed safely for centuries in West Africa, where basic foods such as porridges, soups, and cornbreads are traditionally sour. Miraculin extract was poised for FDA approval in the 1970s as a sugar substitute, yet the approval was delayed when it was classified a food additive, subjecting it to years of testing for safety and efficacy before approval is possible. However, many believe the FDA decision was a result of pressure from the sugar industry to stifle competition. Research conducted by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk for the army in the 1960s and being conducted currently at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste has found no dangers associated with the consumption of miracle fruit.
Health Benefits—Miracle Fruit:
- contains a protein known as miraculin which acts as a sweetness inducer, changing the taste experience when coming into contact with acids in sour foods
- promises health benefits for diabetics and dieters looking to make healthy, low-calorie foods more appealing by eliminating the need for sugar
- contains active polyphenols, which can improve insulin sensitivity amongst diabetic patients
- is being studied as a therapy for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy by encouraging food consumption and improving body weight
Though miraculin extract hasn't yet made it onto shelves as a widespread sweetener, fresh and freeze-dried miracle fruit is garnering attention from chefs and taste adventurers the world over. A group called Flavor Tripping (www.flavortripping.wordpress.com) holds miracle fruit tasting parties in urban destinations such as New York and San Francisco. At the Miracle Fruits Cafe in Tokyo, unbearably sour desserts such as lemon gelato and miniature plums in syrup—all under 100 calories—are transformed into delectably sweet treats under the influence of the magic berry.
By eliminating the need for sugar, miracle fruit promises health benefits for diabetics and dieters looking to make healthy, low-calorie foods more appealing. Beyond dietary benefits, research in Taiwan has shown that consuming the fruit—which contains active polyphenols—can improve insulin sensitivity amongst diabetic patients. As well, the berry is being studied as a therapy for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Such patients often experience a metallic taste in the mouth that makes them averse to eating; preliminary research has shown that consuming miracle fruit can mask this, thereby encouraging food consumption and improving body weight.
So how can you get your hands on this miracle? Because the berry is highly perishable, it is difficult and expensive to export from its native Africa. Luckily, frozen berries retain their sweetness-inducing properties. Many internet purveyors sell miracle fruit in the form of freeze-dried granules; fresh berries can also be purchased from Florida growers such as the Miracle Fruit Man (www.miraclefruitman.com).
To make the most of your magic berry, fully coat your tongue with either the granules or the chewed pulp of a fresh berry, and then wait a few minutes for the miraculin to take full effect. The taste of meats and other foods not usually sour will not be affected; foods that are already sweet will become cloying. Because miraculin is a protein, its potency will be destroyed in hot foods. With cold or room temperature foods, the sweet effects last anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours. A nearly effortless sweet reward: now that's a miracle.
Rachel B. Levin
(Updated: 06/23/09 KR)