Berry, Berry Good
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Synsepalum dulcificum
Synsepalum dulcificum
Photo © 2003 Bob Cannon

By the time you reach middle age, you kind of feel like you've seen it, heard it, tasted it there aren't many opportunities to jolt our senses. That's why we're fascinated by the miracle berry. What it does to your taste buds can turn stuff like lemon juice into a nectar of the gods! A shot of Tabasco sauce suddenly tastes like spicy doughnut glaze.

This cranberry-sized fruit comes from a plant called Synsepalum dulcificum, native to West Africa, where people have enjoyed its properties for centuries. Yet, until recently, no one understood how it tricks our taste receptors.

Forty years ago, scientists learned a protein, aptly named miraculin, is the active ingredient in the berry. Though its chemical properties make it a super sweetener, unlike other sweeteners, miraculin does not trigger sweet receptors on its own. By itself, the taste is unremarkable like a mild cranberry.

In a new study, researchers found that once spread around the mouth, miraculin is able to bind stronger to sweet receptors than your average sweetner, and they change the shape of taste receptors so that other sweetners can't latch on. That's why aspartame tastes bland after a person eats a miracle berry.

However, when acid hits the tongue, miraculin itself changes shape, supercharging the sweet receptors. Oysters with lemon juice turn into chewing gum. Lemon sorbet with Guiness tastes like a chocolate shake. And something sweet can taste too sweet or cloying.

Once the sour food is swallowed, miraculin goes back to its original shape waiting for the next acid to come along. The effect of a miracle berry lasts about an hour, but it's expensive at two dollars each. Mostly the fruit is the focus of taste tripping parties, but it's also found a higher calling.

For cancer patients whose chemotherapy treatments leave a metallic taste in their mouths, the miracle berry has made eating pleasurable again. How appropriate.

 

For more information…

The New York Times published a well written article that describes the miracle berry, its effects on the taste of food and the fun that can be had at a party with this berry as the star.

For information about taste receptors, visit The Inner Body, an online guide to anatomy.

The scientific publication that provided the data that revealed how the active ingredient in the miracle berry actually affects taste receptors can be accessed here.

For an easy-to-read and informative article on the miracle berry, go here.

For kids and parents, KidsHealth.org offers this article about taste and taste receptors.