Have you heard about the flavor-flipping “miracle berry,” the fruit that turns sour into sweet without adding any sugar at all?
The fruit of a West African shrub, synsepalum dulicicum, the miracle berry can modify our sense of taste so that acidic foods taste sweet.
Munch on one of these little red berries, and even the sourest of lemons turns to lemonade on your tongue. A minor miracle, perhaps, but one of interest to those of us watching our blood glucose levels and trying to limit sugar intake.
It’s a wild claim, and one I had to put to the test. As a chef, I’ve spent my career tasting things with attention. I have yet to be fooled by any form of sugar substitute. So when I learned that the miracle berry can bypass the fake stuff and give me a sweet sugar hit without any additional carbohydrates, I was skeptical.
I ordered a pack of freeze-dried miracle berries, and gathered a selection of high-acid foods to put this “miracle” through its paces. I laid out my acidic buffet in my restaurant’s kitchen, and asked my kitchen crew to join me for a very strange tasting.
How it Works
Miracle berry, or miracle fruit, contains miraculin, a glycoprotein, consisting of a protein attached to a carbohydrate. When this sweet protein coats the tongue, it temporarily binds to our taste receptors. By itself, miraculin actually dulls sweet flavors, not what we want. But acids tweak the molecule in such a way that instead of sour, we taste sweet. Vinegar tastes like honey—flavor flipped, mind blown.
The miracle berry works its witchcraft on the tongue itself. It’s not necessary to fully ingest the berry. Once the miraculin is on your tongue, the spell is cast, and for the next hour or so, nothing will taste the same. Miracle berries are highly perishable and won’t grow in most climates. But freeze-dried berries and chewable tablets are available online.
The Acid Test
I chew up half of a freeze-dried miracle berry and smoosh it around my tongue to get those taste buds nice and altered. The berry itself has a mild sweet and sour taste, like a freeze-dried strawberry you might find in your granola. On to the tasting…
My saliva response kicks into high gear as I brace myself to chomp a slice of lemon. What the devil?! As promised, it’s as sweet as lemonade, if not sweeter. Like lemonade powder sprinkled on my tongue, but without the sour twang. My stinging lips remind me this is still a real lemon. My sous chef Justin is cracking up, “This is insane. I could eat a whole lemon like this, no problem.”
The lime’s sharper acid translates into an even sweeter punch. All the green limey aroma is there, so it still tastes like lime, just sweet instead of sour. And it tastes like real sugar, not the thin chemical flavor of artificial sweeteners, or the slight bitter aftertaste of stevia and monk fruit. It’s like my tongue is having a weird dream. This is why the kids call it “flavor tripping.”
Passion fruit is an intensely flavorful fruit with searing acidity. Pastry chefs love it, because they can add lots of sugar which gives something like a sorbet its silky texture. Eating a spoonful of passion fruit pulp is normally a jolt to the tongue. But now it’s a jammy tropical treat, like pineapple, kiwi, and mango having a party in my mouth.
Cara Cara orange
The Cara Cara is a unique variety of orange with gorgeous salmon-colored flesh. It’s relatively low in acid. Remember, acid is what makes the sweet happen. So the Cara Cara, like other oranges, tastes washed out and watery when dulled by the miracle berry. Big shrug from the tasting panel.
This one’s my favorite. With the grapefruit’s usual harsh acid on mute, lovely floral notes and subtle flavors reveal themselves. My tasters agree—if a fruit tasted like this normally, it would be the king of the citrus aisle.
One of the most acidic flavors around, tamarind is used in south Asian cuisines to balance rich and spicy dishes with its tang. Normally, a taste of tamarind will pucker the bravest of palettes. After the miracle berry, the razor-wire acidity is gone. My mouth is confused, and thinks it might be peanut butter.
I grossed out my line cooks by taking a swig of straight buttermilk. Tasted like a mildly sweet smoothie, all yum, no yuck.
Following a tip from a fellow explorer, I try a spoonful of chevre. Sure enough, it’s sweet and creamy with a mild lemony tang. I could frost a carrot cake with this.
Apple cider vinegar
My hippy friends promote apple cider vinegar as a universal health elixir. Could the miracle berry make this miracle cure palatable? Actually, no. The acid is gone, but what remains tastes like a juicebox left out at recess. The fermenty flavors come through in a gross way.
I’m not hopeful after the apple cider. But sous chef Justin tastes a spoonful, closes his eyes, and mmm’s blissfully. This is another must-try. It tastes almost like chocolate syrup. I must restrain myself from taking another swig.
I ask our sommelier to pour me our most acidic wine, a bone-dry Riesling. The miracle berry transforms it into a lush dessert wine. I’m amazed by its balance and structure, gently sweet with spicy notes and tropical vibes. If you like sweeter wines but not the judgment of wine-snobs, just pop a miracle berry and order something dry.
Everyone was blown away by how profoundly the miracle berry changed our sense of taste. We were tasting true sugar where there was none. It even prompted some deep thoughts about the nature of perception and reality. Whoa.
The Future of Sugarless Sweetness?
Could miraculin offer a viable alternative to sugar and other sweeteners? Biochemist Robert Harvey made a valiant effort with the Miralin Company in the 1970s. But he faced obstacles. First was the problem that miraculin must first coat the tongue to work. You can’t just add a pinch to your recipe. So he created a miraculin-coated popsicle. Kid-testers approved, and actually preferred the miraculin popsicle to the sugared “control” popsicle.
The Miralin Company hit resistance from the FDA which refused to classify miraculin as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredient despite studies suggesting its safety, and its history of consumption as food in West Africa. The Miralin Company folded without bringing any products to market, and miraculin still awaits FDA approval.
But with surging diabetes rates, and widespread interest in reducing sugar intake, miraculin may yet have a future. Genetic engineering has made it possible to mass-produce miraculin in tomatoes, although public resistance to GMOs will likely remain an obstacle.
There is even some preliminary evidence that miracle berries contain compounds that may increase insulin sensitivity. Maybe the miracle berry can not only bypass the sugar problem, but could also offer pathways for future diabetes treatments?
For now, the miracle berry remains mostly a curiosity. For adventurous culinary explorers, miraculin offers a mind-expanding opportunity to taste flavors that only exist under its influence. And for those of us looking for a sweet treat without the sugar, miraculin will turn those lemons into lemonade. Perhaps it’s not the most practical sugar alternative, but it’s certainly the most fun at parties.
Read more about Apple, insulin, Intensive management, sugar substitute, U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).