25May2019

How Flavor Tripping Works

You’ve got an invitation to the trendiest party in New York City. Everyone around you is tripping. You pay the guy at the door and pop what he gives you in your mouth. Soon, you’re experiencing things in a way you never have before. Everything feels, looks, sounds, even tastes different. Everyone around you is going wild, telling you to try more and more things. You didn’t think tripping could be like this. The next day, when your friends ask what you did last night, you simply say, “Oh, I ate some lemons and cheese, and then I drank some vinegar.

No drugs were involved in the scenario above, even though the partygoers’ perceptions were altered. The only change was their sense of taste, as they were engaged in a phenomenon known as flavor tripping. Flavor tripping occurs when you consume a berry known as miracle fruit. The berry coats your tongue in such a way that foods taste differently. Specifically, sour foods taste sweet. A lemon suddenly tastes like lemonade. Cheese tastes like frosting, and vinegar tastes like apple juice.

The effect is so unusual that people throw parties and invite guests to eat the berry and follow that up with an array of foods to taste the difference. Since the New York Times reported on the phenomenon in May 2008, orders for miracle fruit have surged, as everyone wants in on the tongue tripping action. But how does this berry actually work? Where does it come from? And is it ever really a good idea to buy berries off the Internet? Read more to find out what causes this miracle in your mouth.

Miracle Fruit

Miracle fruit is formally known as Synsepalum dulcificum. It’s a red berry that’s native to West Africa. The fruit was first described in 1725, when French explorer Chevalier des Marchais observed villagers in West Africa consuming the berry before a meal of sour palm wine and gruel [source: Slater]. It was brought to the United States in the 1960s by a botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1968, scientists isolated the active protein responsible for making things taste sweet. Because of its miraculous way of making things taste so good, the protein was dubbed miraculin. When miracle fruit is consumed, the miraculin in the berry binds to the taste buds on the tongue. A person has receptors on their taste buds that identify sweet, sour, bitter and savory tastes. Normally, if you were to eat a lemon, your sour receptors would start firing. You can learn more about what happens in How Taste Works. Under the influence of miraculin, however, the sweet receptors start signaling and suppress the sour tastes. The miraculin rewires the sweet receptors to temporarily identify acids as sugars.

Note: You won’t have to pucker up to a lemon if you’ve had miraculin.

When the berry is consumed, it may not taste like much; it’s been compared to a less flavorful cranberry [source: Farrell, Bracken]. Much of the berry is a bitter seed, but the little pulp that’s there packs a big punch. To get the full effect, the berry’s pulp should be held in the mouth for a minute and spread all over the tongue.

Then, for about an hour, the miraculin modifies sour foods to taste sweet. Sweet foods will taste about the same, if not overly sweet, and other flavors remain unaffected. Because miraculin is a protein, heat will destroy the effect, so the berry can’t be cooked, and heated foods won’t taste any differently. Eventually, saliva washes away the miraculin, and your tongue returns to normal.

Is your tongue tantalized by the thought of a natural and sugar-free sweetener? Read more to find out what applications this miraculous protein might have, and why you might not have heard of it until now.

Uses for Miraculin

Think of all the people who would love to enjoy sweets without the caloric effects. Because it removes the need for sugar, miraculin could have potential applications for diabetics and for those who want to lose weight but can’t stick to their bland diets. Additionally, miracle fruit growers report that many cancer patients seek out the fruit — some people find it removes the metallic taste that’s sometimes a side effect of chemotherapy [source: Slater]. The U.S. Army even researched the berry, perhaps with the thinking that miraculin could make even the most unpalatable rations edible [source: Cannon].

One country using miracle fruit to appeal to calorie counters is Japan. The Miracle Fruits Café in Tokyo offers dessert items that contain no more than 100 calories. All of the desserts are bland and bitter on their own, but once the miracle fruit is consumed, cakes and ice cream become as scrumptious as their sugary counterparts [source: McCurry].

A meal at the Miracle Fruits Café is expensive because miracle fruit can rot very easily. However, one Japanese food importer has been able to freeze-dry the berries. Another important breakthrough may have come in 2006, when Japanese researchers announced they had genetically engineered lettuce to produce miraculin [source: Rowe]. Before this accomplishment, scientists had been unable to produce miraculin in bacteria, yeast or other plants. If miraculin could be produced in more forms than miracle berries, it may have a chance for more widespread use.

One place miraculin probably won’t get widespread use, though, is the United States. It might have been a possibility: In the 1970s, businessmen Robert Harvey and Don Emery formed the Miralin Company with the aim of using miraculin to manufacture products for diabetics. The men experimented with miraculin tablets, chewing gum and flavored drinking straws [source: Slater]. According to Harvey, their contact with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) led them to believe that the agency would classify the berry as “generally recognized as safe” [source: Fowler].

Despite the company’s success with miraculin, the backers of Miralin wanted Harvey and Emery to look beyond just the diabetic market. In 1974, Miralin developed miracle berry popsicles. Boston schoolchildren were asked to choose between a sugared version and the miraculin version, with the miraculin-flavored popsicle winning every time [source: Slater].

After the popsicle testing, Harvey noticed he was being followed. Harvey reported that a car was driving slowly by the Miralin offices, slowing to take photographs, and Harvey says he was followed home from work one night [source: Fowler]. Later that year, the Miralin offices were ransacked, and files with information for the FDA scattered, according to Harvey. The night before Miralin was to start a major product launch, the FDA sent a letter indicating that the berry should instead be classified as a food additive. The berry’s new status would have required years of testing that Miralin couldn’t afford, and the company folded.

Harvey and Emery have been unable to determine why the FDA changed its mind. Emery suspects a competing industry pressured the FDA [source: Fowler]. The Sugar Association has denied any involvement, and the Calorie Control Council, an association of artificial sweetener manufacturers, has refused to answer questions [source: Fowler].

The FDA’s ruling means that miracle fruit can be legally grown, but it can’t be used in food. As a result, the berry itself has become an underground cult favorite. Read more to see how hipsters get high on flavor tripping.

Note: Don’t be sad, dieter. You can splurge with miraculin.

Okey Dokey Artichokey

In addition to miraculin, there are several other proteins with a sweetening effect, including pentadin, monellin and thaumatin. However, these proteins don’t affect the taste of sour items. These proteins are found in the fruit of African plants. One protein similar to miraculin is curculin, which, in addition to making sour things taste sweet, also enhances the sweetness of other foods. Found in the fruit of a Malaysian plant, curculin’s effects don’t appear to last as long as miraculin’s. However, researchers have hypothesized that substances in saliva suppress curculin’s sweetening effect so that it lasts for only a few minutes [source: Yamashita et al].

One non-protein that acts the same way as miraculin is a compound known as cynarin. Found in artichokes, cynarin makes its fellow ingredients seem slightly sweeter. This effect often causes problems for sommeliers trying to find a glass of wine to pair with the vegetable, as the cynarin will make several good wines too sweet to drink [source: Hesser].

Flavor Tripping Parties

As documented in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters held “acid tests” in the 1960s. These were giant parties where the public was invited to experience the trippy effects of LSD. As the Grateful Dead played, light shows and psychedelic art heightened the effects for guests who had drunk the LSD-laced Kool-Aid offered at these parties.

Flavor tripping parties are a bit tamer. People gather to consume the berry and then taste different foods together. No light show or hallucinogenics needed, just an assortment of tart and sour foods, like citrus fruits, dill pickles, sauerkraut and cheese. Then guests marvel at how lemons and limes taste like candy or how rhubarb tastes like sugar [source: Slater]. Spicy foods, such as hot mustard and Tabasco sauce, may generate an interesting reaction because you don’t taste the burn, but you’ll feel it in your nose and throat.

For those who like to have fun by enjoying slightly more adult beverages, miracle fruit could still have some use. Bartenders have been experimenting with miracle fruit cocktails. A woman at a flavor tripping party who tried mixing lemon sorbet with Guinness deemed the mixture to taste like a chocolate shake, and cheap tequila suddenly tasted like the good stuff [source: Farrell, Bracken]. But better tell the oenophiles to leave their wine at home; miraculin will make all wine taste like saccharine Manischewitz, according to one flavor tripper [source: Farrell, Bracken].

If you want to go flavor tripping, you’d better take a trip to the ATM first. It’s certainly not the cheapest way to entertain. A single miracle berry can cost two dollars or more, and admission to the flavor tripping party described in the New York Times ran attendees 15 bucks [source: Farrell, Bracken].

You may also be in for a wait before you can host your own party. Miracle fruit grows slowly, with berries appearing on the plants only after several years. There are two or three big crops each year, with each crop yielding about 1,000 berries [source: Tran]. After those are gone, that’s it. That may not be enough now that flavor tripping has found its way to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (and now, of course, HowStuffWorks). Curtis Mozie, a miracle fruit grower in Florida, received orders totaling $60,000, or four times his profit the previous year, in the two days following the New York Times story [source: Tran].

Note: No more toe-curling shots; with miraculin, even the bad stuff goes down smooth.

But you may be wondering if there’s any danger to consuming this fruit. Doctors say no, unless you’re allergic to the protein. Allergic reactions to miracle fruit are relatively mild, however: Reactions may manifest themselves as nausea or cold sweats [sources, Tran, Van Atta]. One analysis found that a miracle fruit concentrate 3,000 times the normal amount consumed had no side effects [source: Cannon]. And because miraculin neutralizes only sour flavors, you can’t consume miraculin and then think that swallowing a liter of battery acid or a bottle of aspirin would be tasty [source: Cannon]. It is worth remembering, however, that just because food didn’t taste acidic going down, doesn’t mean you didn’t consume a lot of it. Many a flavor tripper has woken up the next day with a hangover involving a stomachache and mouth ulcers.

 

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