Of course I said yes when a friend invited me to a flavor-tripping party. Despite the edgy-sounding name, no illegal drugs were involved. The restaurant sponsoring the event promised abundant food. And, best of all, I'd get to alter my taste-bud consciousness.
For the past couple of years, foodies have been throwing flavor-tripping parties with the help of a berry called the miracle fruit. You begin by chewing on the small red berry or sucking on a tablet containing berry protein.
The fruit itself doesn't taste like much. But it contains a glycoprotein that plays tricks on your taste buds. For an hour or so, acids in foods trigger a sweet taste. Lemons become lemonade. Vinegar morphs into apple juice. Ta-da: You're flavor tripping.
It was, I figured, weird and harmless fun, the equivalent of sucking helium from a balloon and talking like Alvin the chipmunk.
Since then, I've learned there's a lot more to this West African fruit than most flavor trippers know.
For one thing, it could soon serve a purpose nobler than mere entertainment. Mike Cusnir, an oncologist at Mt. Sinai's Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami, is conducting a clinical study to see if it can benefit chemotherapy patients.
The study's premise is simple. Chemotherapy often distorts a person's sense of taste. Food tastes metallic and generally awful. Patients lose significant weight, compromising their strength and chances of recovery. By temporarily altering a cancer patient's taste perceptions, perhaps the miracle berry can make food enjoyable again.
The berry has a fascinating history. West Africans have used the fruit for hundreds of years to improve the flavor of sour foods. Natives "use it to render palatable a kind of gruel called guddoe, which is made of bread after it becomes too stale for any other purpose," William F. Daniell, a British surgeon, wrote in an 1852 edition of Pharmaceutical Journal.
In the '70s, U.S. entrepreneurs tried to market this small red berry as a natural artificial sweetener. The story of their failure has the makings of a movie, complete with a Watergate-style break-in and food politics intrigue.
That story begins with Linda Bartoshuk, now a professor at the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste and a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. Bartoshuk first became acquainted with miracle fruit as a young researcher in the late '60s.
Experts once thought miracle fruit worked by suppressing the body's sour receptors. But Bartoshuk and others disproved that theory. In fact, the fruit works with the help of a glycoprotein called miraculin. It's a protein with a sugar molecule attached.
That sugar molecule is key. It stays just out of reach of the sweet receptors on the tongue — unless there's an acid present. Introduce an acid, and the sweet receptors can now reach the molecule, triggering a nerve that sends the brain a message: Sweet!
The sour taste is still there, but it's overwhelmed. The taste is genuine, calorie-free sweet with no hint of the synthetic. Fruits that contain moderate amounts of acid are especially enhanced by miraculin, Bartoshuk says. "Strawberries and tomatoes are two things that are dynamite because both have acids and both are good sweet."
Many foods won't taste different. When I tried miracle fruit, I found radishes exactly the same. Lemons and limes, of course, became syrupy sweet.
Changes in other foods were more subtle. Gorgonzola tasted a little like cheesecake. The flavor of Tabasco sauce got sweeter, but it retained its heat, a fact verified as I watched a tear roll down my friend's face after she tossed back a shot.
In a culture desperate for a consequence-free way to have our cake and eat it, too, you can see how miracle fruit would pique an entrepreneur's interest.
In the late '60s, that entrepreneur was Bob Harvey. In his 30s, Harvey had already made millions with his invention of a nuclear-powered artificial heart. As a doctoral student under Bartoshuk, he decided to study miraculin.
Harvey raised money from investors and developed a line of sugar-free products that used miraculin. But as he was poised to launch his company in the early '70s, strange things began to happen.
In the 2008 book, The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner includes a chapter on miracle fruit and describes how Harvey found himself being chased one night by a mysterious car at 90-mph speeds. Another night, he and a partner returned to their office after dinner to discover someone had broken in, disabling their alarm system and leaving files scattered on the floor.
Soon afterward, Harvey's company was dealt a death blow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration denied its petition to deem miraculin "generally recognized as safe."
Without that designation, the company couldn't add miraculin to other foods. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon says the company could have elected to do further testing to prove miraculin's safety and obtain the designation.
Instead, the company folded.
In The Fruit Hunters, Gollner explores theories about Harvey's ordeal. One involves a sugar-industry lobbying group that worked to trigger Harvey's company's demise.
Today, more than 30 years later, miracle fruit is making news again.
Cusnir, the oncologist, got the idea for his study from a patient who brought the fruit to his office. His study involves about 40 chemo patients who answer questionnaires about their taste experiences with and without miracle fruit. Official results won't be available until the summer, but unofficially, he says, most patients report that the fruit makes their food taste better.
Bartoshuk says the metallic taste that chemo patients often complain about is a phantom taste, caused by taste bud damage. If miracle fruit is shown to help patients, she says, it may be because it simply overpowers those bad phantom tastes with its intense sweetness.
And if miracle fruit helps chemo patients, Cusnir foresees testing its potential to ease taste dysfunction caused by other sources, such as antibiotics.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., meanwhile, the people who run Miracle Fruit Exchange Inc. have big plans. Curtis Mozie, a retired postal worker, began growing the fruit shrubs as a hobby nearly 20 years ago.
A few years ago, he teamed up with agricultural engineer Jose Fernando Aristizabal. They now have several hundred acres, including operations in Central America and Africa.
A May 2008 New York Timesarticle about flavor tripping "triggered the whole marketing of miracle fruit," Aristizabal says. Since then, demand continues to grow. Customers include diabetics, dieters and people who just enjoy how the fruit makes their food taste, he says.
As demand rises, the fruit will become more affordable, Aristizabal says. His company sells through the Internet. Small quantities — 30 berries or fewer — are $2.20 each plus shipping.
He foresees eventually selling the fruit in groceries and working with food-processing companies to develop sugar-free products that use miraculin as a sweetener. "What it's going to create is a new lifestyle for America," he says.
It all sounds good. In fact, it sounds like what Bob Harvey wanted to do — until the feds stepped in.
FDA spokesman Herndon says selling the fruit is perfectly legal.
But there remains a rub. You can't sell miraculin if it has been added to other foods, he says.
For now, Aristizabal says he's content to continue selling the fruit alone. "What we want to do is grow our business without any problems or headaches."
But could miraculin be the next big sweetener?
It seems possible. In The Fruit Hunters, Gollner reports that the Japanese have already embraced miracle fruit, developing miraculin pills for diabetics and genetically modified lettuce and tomatoes that contain miraculin. Some cafes even sell freeze-dried miracle fruit. Diners eat it, followed by sour desserts. Without the sugar, they consume fewer calories.
Closer to home, University of Florida researchers are working to engineer miraculin into strawberries. "We're using it as one tool to create a strawberry with superior flavor," says Kevin Folta, a horticulture sciences professor.
If they're successful, groceries might eventually carry cartons of strawberries that include three or four containing miraculin. Eat one of those first, and the rest taste super sweet.
For now, though, miracle fruit lovers will have content themselves with the berry itself. Folta grows his own — on a bush in his backyard. Every so often, he harvests the berries and invites friends over. They dine on lemons, limes and pineapple, he says, "and laugh about how strange it is to make sour things sweet."
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