Miracle Berries: More Fun Than Licking Toads

Not that I’d know.

Have you heard of miracle fruit?  I hadn’t until Jenny at I’m Never Full introduced the rest of the Houston Chowhounds to this arcane bit of nature.  She wrote an entry on the mysterious fruit, describing them as “trippy berries” that will “change your tastebuds for 30 mins to an hour and cause sour and bitter foods to taste sweet.”  Foodies everywhere have begun hosting events called — appropriately enough — “flavor tripping parties” to explore the tongue-altering properties of this tiny berry.  Think of it as legal shrooming…for your mouth.

The miracle fruit was first discovered by Europeans in West Africa in the 18th century, where it was noted that the local tribes picked and ate the berry — which is in the same family of tropical flowering plants that produces shea butter and star apples — before their meals.  Considering the fact that West African tribal diets consisted mainly of yams, seeds, chili paste, millet, and sorghum, I imagine that the flavor-altering properties of the miracle fruit were quite welcome for an occasional change of pace.

The miracle fruit works its magic by releasing a glycoprotein molecule (similar to a monosaccharide) called miraculin when eaten.  Those molecules bind to your tongue and alter the way that your tastebuds’ receptors react to acidic or sour foods.  As a result, sour and/or acidic foods taste sweet.  This effect lasts for up to an hour after consuming miracle fruit.

Miracle fruit isn’t a sweet in and of itself — that is, it doesn’t taste sweet — but researchers have been trying for decades to establish it as a sweetener or flavor additive in foods.  Think about it: people would no longer be dependent upon such unhealthy sweeteners as white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.  Rates of obesity and diabetes could sharply decline as we cut those things out of our diets.  You could make lemonade or limeade with no sugar at all; eat a tart grapefruit without dousing it in honey first; or enjoy a rhubarb pie without a side of strawberry ice cream to cut the sourness of the rhubarb (well, actually, I’d still do that…I will never give up my rhubarb pie with ice cream).  All you would have to do is eat one miracle berry first.

So what’s the holdup?  Temperatures over 100° F unfortunately destroy the miraculin compound, so it can’t be used in baking or canning or any other activity involving the application of heat.  Fresh berries can be frozen or refrigerated for a few days, but don’t keep for very long.  The best method for preserving the miraculin so far has been through a powdered concentrate of the berries, but the FDA denied its approval as a food additive in the 1970s.  It’s not that the powder was unsafe, mind you; powerful corn and sugar lobbies simply prevented it from being approved as it threatened their very existence (as you can well imagine).

Until developers come up with a means of production available to the masses (and until lobbyists stop controlling our government, which should be right around the same time you can buy popsicles in hell), you only have a few options for trying this fascinating fruit.  You can purchase a plant and harvest its berries yourself, as Jenny did.  You can order a shipment of berries from a supplier for about $2 per berry.  Or you can attend one of the “flavor tripping” parties that have become so popular.

Houston Chowhounds will be hosting such an event in the coming months.  For more information (and to become a member of a great foodie community!), check out the group at our website:  Houston Chowhounds.  While a place and time haven’t yet been established, our order of miracle berries is on its way to our trusty head Hound.

You know you want to try them…

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